Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Hungary's hypocritical war on universities

  • Not listening. Viktor Orban's relentless crackdown against universities and liberal academic freedoms in Hungary are grounds for the EPP to expel his Fidesz party (Photo: European Parliament)

Following a tense meeting with Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban 18 months ago, the president of the European People's Party (EPP), Joseph Daul, issued a clear warning: the EPP "will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or rule of law is disregarded."

Academic freedom must be respected, Daul said, adding that the EPP wanted the Central European University (CEU) to remain open.

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The CEU's announcement in late October that it may be forced to close up shop in Hungary because of the government's curbs on independent universities is a clear sign that Hungary has crossed this red line.

As the EPP meets in Congress in Helsinki this week, it should not let Daul's straightforward message be diluted in an internal struggle between hopeful leaders.

Voices in the Netherlands and Sweden rightly disputed Fidesz' place in the EPP.

Expel Fidesz now

The European People's Party should now take action and expel Orban's Fidesz for violating the EPP's own standards and values.

The Hungarian government's war on academic freedom, part of an overall pattern of attempts to silence critical voices and restrict independent thinking, deserves a strong response.

In April 2017, the Orban government amended Hungary's higher education law.

Seemingly neutral amendments imposed onerous obligations targeting foreign universities, including the requirement for them to have a campus in their country of origin and a for formal agreement between Hungary and the government in the country of origin.

The amendments, widely referred to as 'LEX CEU' because they so clearly targeted the university, came under international criticism by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's rule of law body, and in December 2017, the European Commission initiated a legal process against Hungary.

The university has since complied with all requirements, and a government delegation inspected its newly-created campus at Bard College in April 2018.

However, the Hungarian government has so far refused to sign the required agreement with the state of New York to secure CEU's future in Hungary.

Hypocritically, at the same time, it has signed agreements with 23 other universities to allow their continued operations in Hungary.

On October 25, the CEU announced that it would have no other choice than to relocate to Vienna unless the agreement with the state of New York – the foreign government unit involved - is signed by December 1.

Efforts to force the CEU out of Hungary appear to be nothing but Orban's personal crusade against the philanthropist billionaire George Soros, who founded the university in 1991.

The closure of one of central Europe's most prestigious and renowned universities would be a huge loss for Hungary.

But these assaults on independent universities point to a more sinister interest in limiting academic freedom and controlling what students are taught.

In July, the government banned gender studies from state university programmes and in October the Academy of Sciences, coming under increasing government control, scrapped two planned public presentations, one related to gender and the other to social media, that were part of a series of public lectures for a November conference.

The ban on gender studies is a good example of Hungary's war on academic freedom: while the state university, Eotvos Lorand University, was forced to remove gender studies from its program, CEU, as a foreign university, can still offer it.

In sum, no CEU, no gender studies in Hungary.

By scaring off and shutting down foreign universities, the government will have free rein to do away with programmes and courses deemed 'too liberal' by influencing, pushing, or forcing local universities to follow the government's preferred ideology.

These actions are undercutting and limiting academic freedom along the way.

The undemocratic measures, coupled with eight years of assaults on the rule of law, curbing the independence of the courts, imposing restrictions on media, and demonising nongovernmental organisations, have come to a point at which enough is enough.

In September, the European Parliament rightly triggered a political process under Article 7 of the EU treaty to address threats to rule of law in Hungary.

The EPP has an important role to play too.

At its Helsinki summit this week, EPP members should acknowledge that Fidesz, its Hungarian party member, does not embrace its values and principles.

The full-scale war on academia and critical and independent thinking and the longstanding attacks on the rule of law shows that it's time for the EPP to move from words to action and expel Fidesz.

Lydia Gall is the eastern EU and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch

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