By István Ujhelyi
It is uncommon for a country the size of the US state of Maine to dominate international headlines for months over a single issue. Hungary has been in the spotlight for well over a year now because of its pugnacious government’s repeated efforts to oust the Central European University (CEU), claiming the institution does not fulfil legal requirements.
One must not forget, however, that new legal measures were tailor-made against the CEU from the very beginning, while it was the Hungarian government which eventually failed to hold up its end of the bargain. The hardships endured by the institution under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán are well-documented and have raised many eyebrows across the world.
Yet, few would have predicted that Orbán would be able to follow through with his plan, evicting the university amidst a loud international pro-CEU campaign powered by renowned academics, civil organisations and even some of his own political allies.
The worst-case scenario was realised on Monday when the CEU announced that it would relaunch all US-accredited degree programs in Vienna from September 2019, leaving Budapest after 25 years of harmonious cooperation. Some 80% of newly-enrolled students will now begin their studies in Vienna, while teachers and staff will have to move or commute daily to the Austrian capital. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
With the CEU forced out of Hungary, Budapest loses much more than human capital, significant research funds or a quality institution of higher education. In a country where critical voices are muffled, opposition newspapers are shut down and where the state serves only a selected few, the CEU provided an independent platform for open debate and free speech.
Now we must learn the hard way that these self-proclaimed “illiberals” are political terrorists without a penchant for crisis negotiation; if you are not with us, you are against us. But the university’s decision to move is understandable as much as it is regrettable. A prestigious institution that operates in a highly competitive international environment simply cannot allow itself to function in continuous uncertainty, fuelled by vicious smear campaigns and propaganda.
Orbán, whose political agenda is built on perpetual and often entirely artificial confrontations, emerges victorious from yet another battle that once seemed too risky to start. He did not vanquish the CEU, though. On the losing end is the European People’s Party (EPP) whose entire leadership, having fallen for Orbán’s elaborate peacock dance, lost their credibility as guardians of European values overnight.
In a spectacular act of betrayal, EPP group leader Manfred Weber – the man who eyes the most influential EU position after 2019 – essentially sacrificed rule of law and democracy at the altar of short-term political gain. This is hardly the best strategy if you are preparing to run an institution that is supposed to defend those very principles.
The EPP’s so-called “red lines” (i.e. not pursuing NGOs and the CEU) have been repeatedly crossed without any consequences or repercussions that might push the Hungarian government to reconsider its plans. It is not surprising that political observers have begun to wonder whether Orbán represents the real face of the EPP, acting as the puppet master who abuses the hypocrisy of his peers in the biggest European party without them even noticing.
Rather uncharacteristically, even the USA acted like a toothless giant in failing to defend an American university under attack in an EU member state that is also a close NATO ally. The initial charm offensive by David B. Cornstein, US Ambassador to Hungary, yielded no results. The diplomat appeared to give up on the CEU entirely, stating that the case has “nothing to do with academic freedom” and refusing to criticise Orbán. While the State Department issued half-hearted press statements about their “disappointment” over the ejection of the university, the Hungarian government’s propaganda machinery was in full swing, claiming that the CEU’s decision to move is “nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff, which does not merit the attention of the government”.
By turning a blind eye, Hungary’s allies failed to demonstrate commitment to universal democratic principles, thus empowering a corrupt populist who runs a country in the heart of Europe like his family business. And just like that, the region’s best university is gone and the hope that any international actor is capable of stopping a fragile democracy’s backslide into autocracy is gone with it.
_István Ujhelyi is a Member of the European Parliament for Hungary and the head of the Hungarian delegation in the Socialists & Democrats group._
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