Wednesday

24th May 2017

Threatened Budapest university calls for EU support

The president of the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU) wants action from the European Commission to protect it from the Hungarian government’s attempt to shut it down.

Michael Ignatieff told Euobserver on Tuesday (25 April) that he was “cautiously optimistic that this will happen, but it’s up to the Commission, not up to me”.

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  • The exterior of the new Central European University building in Budapest. (Photo: CEU Hungary)

Ignatieff had earlier met commission vice-president Frans Timmermans over a potential infringement procedure against Hungary, after MPs approved a law regulating higher education.

The CEU, founded by Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros 25 years ago to help the post-communist countries develop an open democratic culture, is the main target of the law.

The legislation requires CEU to establish a campus in the US, even though it is operating in Hungary.

It also requires a bilateral international agreement between the US and the Hungarian government on the university, even though the federal government in the US has no jurisdiction over higher education.

The new law would also reverse an earlier practice to allow non-EU citizens to teach and work at CEU without a work permit, which might infringe the European rules.

The commission will discuss the CEU on Wednesday, among other issues that have raised questions over Hungary’s slide towards illiberal democracy under prime minister Viktor Orban. It is expected to launch several probes.

In the afternoon, the European Parliament will also hold a debate on Hungary, in which Orban will also speak.

Ignatieff said the CEU had no prior warning or consultation with the government over the legislation that effectively makes it impossible for the CEU to continue its work in Budapest.

“It is the first time since 1945 that an EU member state sought to close down a university, that is a serious matter,” he told MEPs in a hearing organised by five parties in the European Parliament, including the European People’s Party, to which the ruling Hungarian Fidesz party belongs to.

Ignatieff argued that the threat to academic freedom is a threat to democracy.

He rebuffed the Hungarian government claims that his university broke rules of operation. Ignatieff said the school was in full compliance with the law, and the education ministry gave it a clean slate.

“We are not a political institution,” he said. “I have very little interest in Mr Orban’s political agenda. Leave us the hell alone, let us do what universities do,” he told an audience at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles on Monday evening.

Soros-phobia

George Soros is the latest “bogeyman” for the Orban’s government, which accuses the billionaire philanthropist of "organising" mass migration through his support for NGOs.

But by singling out the CEU, Orban has unleashed a wave of protests with tens of thousands marching in support of the university in Budapest in recent weeks.

Ignatieff, the former leader of Canada’s Liberal party, who has been labelled by Hungarian government officials as a "a failed liberal politician”, said academic freedom went both ways.

"It means independence from the state and from my founder. I don’t take orders from Mr Soros,” he said at ULB.

Ignatieff warned in the EP that “it’s impermissible in Europe that a politician take a university hostage to serve his agenda”.

Zoltan Nagy, Hungary’s ambassador to Belgium, speaking also at ULB said there was no political vendetta against "Soros institutions”, and that the CEU was not a battleground.

NGO attack

But that feels very different, if you are running an NGO in Hungary that partly gets its funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

Hungary’s government has tabled a draft law that requires organisations that receive more than €23,000 funding in a year from a foreign donor to register themselves as “foreign funded” with the authorities.

NGOs would also be obliged to identify themselves as “foreign funded” in all their advocacy publications, or media advertisements.

But critics say that transparency is not the real aim of the draft law, but to discredit and eventually silence critical voices.

"There is an ongoing campaign to discredit the NGOs,” Stefania Kapronczay, executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) told Euobserver.

Kapronczay said one of the aims of the planned legislation is that NGOs would no longer be able to raise awareness about issues they highlight now, for instance Hungary’s treatment of migrants at its borders or the dire conditions in hospitals.

The other reason, she says, is to discourage people from expressing their concerns.

She added that transparency is already a fact, NGOs are already obliged to report on their donors and projects. "If there is suspicion of wrongdoing, Hungarian authorities already have jurisdiction and tools to investigate,” she said.

Top lawmakers from the ruling Fidesz party have however called NGOs “agent organisations”, and promised to “sweep out” Soros-funded groups.

“They say we are foreign agents to discredit our criticism of government policies, that our criticism does not come out of a citizen concern, but serves a foreign interest,” Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee told Euobserver.

The two NGOs already feel the heat from the draft law. One of TASZ’s training on the rights of disabled children was turned down by an organisation of teachers citing the current political climate as the reason for the decline, Kapronczay said.

NGOs worry that more potential partners and citizens who would donate or would turn to the organisations for help will be discouraged.

“The government’s rhetoric creates the image that these NGOs are suspicious, that they work against the Hungarian society,” Pardavi said.

Pardavi and Kapronczay have met several MEPs while in Brussels this week, including Joseph Daul, chair of the EPP.

But they warn that the draft law on the NGOs is just a symptom of a wider problem of rule of law in Hungary that is to be debated once again in the EP.

Focus

Thousands protest Hungary university bill

Protesters reportedly called on Hungarian president Janos Ader to veto a bill that would close down Central European University in Budapest.

Pressure mounts on Hungary over university law

EPP group leader Manfred Weber calls for the European Commission to investigate Hungary, but the centre-right party still stands by prime minster Orban in the wake of international uproar over legislation targeting the Central European University.

Analysis

Hungary's university protests, a path for change?

Hungary has seen mass protests over the last weeks in support of the Budapest-based Central European University, targeted by prime minister Orban's latest legislation. But it is unclear how the new street momentum will be transformed into political power.

MEPs preparing to crack down on Orban

The EU assembly's largest group is split by its "enfant terrible", but enough MEPs are likely to abstain or vote Yes on the "Article 7" crackdown over Orban's illiberal rule.

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