Thursday

29th Jun 2017

Anti-Soros university bill sparks protest in Budapest

  • Thousands gathered in Budapest to show support for the Central European University (Photo: Nora Koves)

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • The Hungarian government's latest campaign against EU policies entitled "Let's stop Brussels" (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

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.

'An island'

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.

Opinion

The university so disliked by Orban

In a world with many new phrases like 'fake news' or 'alternative facts', Viktor Orban's government in Hungary is taking a more familiar approach to shutting down academic free expression in Hungary.

Soros-linked NGOs defy Orban purge

Hungarian NGOs funded by philanthropist George Soros have vowed to defy prime minister Viktor Orban’s plan to “sweep them out” of the country.

Soros tells EU to step up support for eastern states

Billionaire investor George Soros has said the European Union must do more to help its struggling eastern region, including a fast-tracking of member state applications to join the euro currency.

Agenda

Brexit summit, Turkey and Hungary dominate EU This WEEK

European leaders will adopt their negotiating position on the Brexit summit on Saturday, whereas the situation of Hungary's democracy and post-referendum Turkey will be under scrutiny in the EU this week.

Analysis

Hard days ahead for Serbia's gay PM

The nomination of Brnabic as Serbia's first gay prime minister is linked to party politics and pinkwashing rather than civil rights.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEGet the Latest News from the 2017 Estonian EU Council Presidency @EU2017EE
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Against Critical Voices
  3. European Free AllianceEFA Is Looking for a New Intern
  4. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law
  5. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan Statin Therapy Interfere With a Physically Active Lifestyle?
  6. EPSUOn Public Services Day, Stop Austerity! Workers Need a Pay Rise!
  7. EGBAOnline Gambling: The EU Court Rejects Closed Licensing Regimes In Member States
  8. World VisionFaces of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow: Join the Debate on Violence Against Girls - 29 June
  9. ECR GroupThe EU Must Better Protect Industry from Unfair Competition
  10. Malta EU 2017Better Protection for Workers From Cancer-Causing Substances
  11. EPSUAfter 9 Years of Austerity Europe's Public Sector Workers Deserve a Pay Rise!
  12. UNICEFEU Trust Fund Contribution to UNICEF's Syria Crisis Response Reaches Nearly €200 Million

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan an Ideal Body Weight Lead to Premature Death?
  2. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Charges: What Does It Entail?
  3. World VisionWorld Refugee Day, a Dark Reminder of the Reality of Children on the Move
  4. Dialogue PlatformMuslims Have Unique Responsibility to Fight Terror: Opinon From Fethullah Gülen
  5. EUSEW17Check out This Useful Infographic on How to Stay Sustainable and Energy Efficient.
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Criticises the Juncker Plan's Implementation
  7. UNICEF1 in 5 Children in Rich Countries Lives in Relative Income Poverty, 1 in 8 Faces Food Insecurity
  8. International Partnership for Human Rights26 NGOs Call on Interpol Not to Intervene Versus Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders
  9. Malta EU 2017Significant Boost in Financing for SMEs and Entrepreneurs Under New Agreement
  10. World VisionYoung People Rise up as EU Signs Consensus for Development at EU Development Days