Anti-Soros university bill sparks protest in Budapest
By Eszter Zalan
Thousands formed a human chain around the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest on Tuesday (4 April) after the Hungarian parliament passed legislation that could effectively shut down the institution, which was founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's government pushed through the legislation in the parliament, where his ruling Fidesz party commands an overwhelming majority.
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CEU's leaders and other critics of the law, which will tighten the rules on the country's 28 foreign universities, say the purpose of the legislation is to shut down the institution that has 14,000 alumni from 117 countries.
The battle became the focus point of concern over the freedom of education and liberal democracy in Hungary.
It comes as the ruling Fidesz party is planning a crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs and a "national consultation" on subjects such as asylum law - currently underway - which the government has entitled "Let's stop Brussels!"
Billboards across the capital, Budapest, are promoting the "Let's stop Brussels!" slogan, in an effort to convince the 8 million voters to fill out questionnaires sent out by the government via post.
The government has denied that it is targeting CEU. Billionaire George Soros founded the university in 1991 to train post-communist eastern Europeans, who were transitioning into democracy.
"We are committed to use all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros," said Zoltan Balog, the minister of human resources, quoted by Bloomberg before the vote in parliament.
Under the new legislation, foreign universities must have campuses in Budapest and their home country, in this case the US. However, CEU operates solely in Budapest as it is focused on eastern Europe.
The US is disappointed
The crackdown has sparked protest from the US as well, even though Orban was the first European leader to support US president Donald Trump.
"The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of the legislation targeting the Central European University, despite serious concerns raised by the United States, by hundreds of local and international organisations and institutions, and by thousands of Hungarians who value academic freedom and the many important contributions by Central European University to Hungary," the US embassy in Budapest said in a statement.
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier also criticised the law. He urged the European Parliament on Tuesday to defend human rights, citing the example of CEU.
"Europe should not remain silent, if civil society, even science, we are seeing now at the Central European University in Budapest, is being stifled," Steinmeier said in an address to MEPs in Strasbourg.
However, the European Commission remains silent on the issue.
On Tuesday, a spokeswomen for the EU executive said the commission was "following developments with some concern".
"We will proceed with the full analysis of the draft law once it becomes law," she said.
The EU commissioner for education, Tibor Navracsics, who himself is Hungarian, has voiced support for CEU.
A well-respected university teacher, Navracsics has been a key ally of Orban, serving as his deputy prime minister, foreign and justice minister before joining the commission.
The commission said it saw no conflict of interest with Navracsics being responsible for freedom of education, while standing so close to Orban.
Protesters gathering on Tuesday afternoon around CEU, urging the Hungarian president, Janos Ader, not to sign the legislation into law.
"Our aim is to have the president veto the law, although I do not trust that it will be stopped by Janos Ader," Luca Laszlo, one of the protesters, a first-year student of nationalism studies at CEU, told EUobserver.
"I rather trust that the EU will intervene, the German president has already spoken in defence of CEU," he said, going on to say that "I trust that the EU has still enough influence to stop this legislation."
She called CEU an "island" in Budapest, a unique institution where students are equal partners with professors and lively dialogue is encouraged, as opposed to the rigid educational structures at other universities in Budapest.
She said in his latest email to students, the president of the university told them to continue studying. If the law stays, new students will not be able to enrol starting from January 2018.
"I have no plan B," said Laszlo, when asked how she is planning her future studies.