Hungary: The War on Education

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty

Riot police blocking protesters in support of the Central European University near the Fidesz Party headquarters, Budapest, April 9, 2017

Is a crackdown on universities the latest addition to the increasingly sophisticated repertoire of right-wing populism? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, long a pioneer in anti-liberal government in Europe and an admirer of Donald Trump, is making a wager that it is—with implications that go far beyond Hungary’s borders. At issue is a new law aimed at shutting down the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, founded and endowed by George Soros, the Hungarian-American hedge fund manager and philanthropist. But it is clearly part of a larger culture war against liberal values as well as a very concrete attempt to bring any independent institutions remaining in Hungary under Orbán’s control. Both the European Parliament and the US State Department have called for the suspension of the new law. But it is not clear they can stop him.

In recent years,Orbán has moved Hungary in a more authoritarian direction than any other European country. Since 2010, he has written a new constitution, enfeebled the judiciary, put much of the news media under the control of government-friendly oligarchs, and created a system of crony capitalism in which economic success depends increasingly on connections to his party. He has also taken an extremely hard line against refugees, building a fence with Serbia and running government-sponsored campaigns that portray all asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” posing a threat to the nation’s Christian European identity.

One would have thought that the nation’s well-being is in fact much more endangered by Orbán’s drastic reductions in education budgets at all levels; rare is a government in today’s world that seems determined to make society less smart. The number of university students has been declining dramatically since 2010; meanwhile, the age at which students can legally leave school has been lowered from eighteen to sixteen. Orbán, as part of his self-professed turn to “illiberalism,” has put forward the notion of a “work-based state.” In theory, such a state is the opposite of a polity where financial speculation generates most of the wealth. In practice, this idea has meant public works programs—especially for Roma—that critics view as highly exploitative; it has also resulted in an attempt to create a workforce primarily of manual laborers, where everyone knows their place and can at most aspire to employment by German industry (Mercedes is currently spending a billion euros on a new plant in central Hungary).

Orbán’s party has for years tried to gain control of the country’s institutions of higher education. It now appoints powerful chancellors and tries to shape what is taught through the accreditation process (it has also issued a new, highly nationalist curriculum for schools). But one island of independence and critical thought remained: the CEU, an institution of graduate study founded in 1991, with 1,440 students, and distinguished faculty from around the world.

On March 28, a member of Orbán’s Fidesz Party introduced an amendment to Hungary’s higher-education law in the Hungarian parliament that aims effectively to shut down the CEU. Treated as a matter of national emergency, the measure passed within a week. And despite an international storm of protest by university presidents, twenty-four Noble Prize winners, and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic—not to mention demonstrations 80,000-strong on the streets of Budapest—it was soon signed into law by Hungary’s president, János Áder, a close ally of Orbán. 

The new law makes no direct mention of the CEU. It stipulates only that a university accredited in a non-European country that belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has to operate a full campus in its place of origin in order to be able to award degrees in Hungary. Only one institution fit the bill: the CEU, which has a charter from the state of New York, but does no teaching or research in the US. The law also set an impossibly tight deadline for establishing an American campus, ensuring that the CEU would no longer be able to accept new students by the beginning of 2018.

Fidesz politicians did little to hide the real motivation of the law. For years, Soros, the CEU’s founder, has been promoting the values of the open society: liberty, tolerance, and the rule of law. But, though government spokespeople only ever call it “Soros University,” he does not control the CEU from behind the scenes, let alone use it as a political tool. He has sponsored NGOs that seek to defend human rights and fight corruption in Hungary. And Soros has made the case that Europe should set an official, relatively low target for an annual intake of refugees – though mainly to deter desperate people from making the often deadly journey across the Mediterranean. A few weeks before the amendment to the higher-education act was introduced, Mária Schmidt, a historian close to the government, attacked the CEU for teaching gender studies; a pro-government newspaper charged that the university was firing faculty simply because they were Hungarians. The government’s propaganda machine has also tried to tie the CEU, one of the world’s most diverse universities—students come from 115 countries—to migration, which in turn is inevitably linked with the threat of terrorism.


Already, at the beginning of this year, Szilárd Németh, a vice-president of the ruling party Fidesz, had threatened that the state would use “all the tools at its disposal” to “sweep out” the NGOs funded by Soros; according to Németh, they “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.” During the parliamentary debate on the bill, Zoltán Balog, the “minister of human resources” (which includes education), charged that Soros had “begun a worldwide smear campaign” against Hungary and that the international protests only revealed “the power of his network.” 

However, Orbán seems to have miscalculated the extent to which his attack on Soros would be supported by the Trump administration. Fidesz spokespeople kept emphasizing that the CEU could be saved if Hungary and “the American government” negotiated a new international treaty concerning its operations. Clearly, Orbán hoped that he and Trump might sit down together and humiliate Soros. Indeed, Trump is no friend of Soros, who has supported many Democratic candidates and predicted that the real-estate developer would fail disastrously as a president. And Orbán effectively endorsed Trump last summer—the first European leader to do. But he has been waiting in vain for any kind of political reward. No one in Budapest appears to have noticed that in the US universities are not the business of the federal government (and that, in any case, as the Hungarian-American historian Charles Gati put it, no American president will spend more than half an hour on Hungary—per year). Even conservatives in the US did not like the look of an American institution abroad getting closed; with senators including John McCain and Orrin Hatch called on Orbán to negotiate with the CEU. After all, if the CEU goes, how can American universities in Beirut and Cairo be safe? Even Trump’s State Department has reacted more strongly—at least initially—than many of its European counterparts.

Meanwhile, instead of getting popular support from Hungarians themselves for attacking a relatively privileged institution, the Fidesz government has faced blistering opposition. According to some estimates, the protests against the CEU crackdown in April were the largest demonstrations in Hungary since Orbán came to power in 2010. In the protests I witnessed, high school students walked alongside teachers and elderly couples; the atmosphere was serious, but not tense, and demonstrators delighted in playful humor and satire. Government-friendly media explained that all the protesters had been paid and flown in by Soros; soon after, the demonstrators started to hold up paper airplanes with “Soros Airlines” written on them and chanted “We came by plane,” and someone put a sign saying “private jet” on an old bicycle. Just as in the US, some Hungarian conservatives—including leading figures in state universities—were deeply concerned by the larger implications of the new higher-education law and defended the CEU as “one of Hungary’s doors to the world.” Unlike those in the US, they had to take real personal risks to say publicly that Orbán had at last crossed a line.

PuzzlePix/REX/Shutterstock/AP Images

Police at a demonstration against Hungary’s new education law, Budapest, April 2, 2017

The protests have continued and by now are about much more than the CEU. Citizens are calling for the restoration of the rule of law and are criticizing Orbán’s increasingly close relations with Vladimir Putin (from whom Hungary received an enormous loan to renovate and extend a nuclear power plant). The government in turn has widened its attack on civil society, introducing a law that would require NGOs to signal clearly whether they receive foreign funding—an approach pioneered by Putin that would further target Soros-backed initiatives in Hungary. As a government representative explained, “It’s not a bad thing if there is a little star or comment which explains whether this organization is supported by George Soros or not.”

Crucially, the European Union has done little so far to rein in the Hungarian government. Orbán continues to be shielded from effective pressure from Brussels because he is a member of the European People’s Party, the largest international group of strongly pro-European Christian Democrat parties in the European Parliament. Helmut Kohl famously said that Christian Democrats had not built Europe to then leave it to socialists—so having a large majority in the European Parliament by including large national parties like Fidesz has long been of supreme importance to the EPP. Orbán’s antics—authoritarianism at home and aggressive rhetoric against Angela Merkel’s refugee policies abroad—have often strained his relations with the EPP. But in the end, after rebuking him mildly, the EPP has always looked the other way. 


Orbán, clearly thinking that Trump’s victory has validated his anti-refugee stance, is now making a bid to become the leader of Europe’s center-right as a whole. In his speech at an EPP Congress in Malta in March, he advertised his vision of a “Christian, national” Europe. His inflammatory language about the left allegedly destroying Europe by letting in as many Muslims as possible used to be heard only on the far right. But this changed during the refugee crisis in 2015, when Hungary erected a fence on its southern border to keep out Syrian refugees arriving via the Balkans. Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), kept inviting Orbán to put pressure on Merkel to abandon refugee-friendly policies. For Germany, which is facing a crucial election of its own this year, the consequences of courting Orbán may be larger than they appear, much as British conservatives discovered with Nigel Farage and Brexit.

For its part, the Hungarian government has long believed that much political capital can be gained by attacking Brussels. The attack on the CEU coincided with a plainly anti-EU domestic campaign under the banner “Let’s Stop Brussels.” Officially, this campaign is presented as a “national consultation,” with 8 million citizens receiving a questionnaire with highly manipulative questions. They suggest that the EU wants to impose higher taxes on Hungary and settle illegal immigrants in the country. Many Hungarian observers have commented on the irony of such a campaign in a place where funds from the EU amount to 5.5 percent of GDP and 60 percent of jobs depend on the common European market. Posters saying “Let’s Stop Brussels” have appeared in front of other official government billboards explaining that “this hospital is being renovated with the help of the European Union.” 

This blatant hypocrisy has proven too much for the European Commission. The EU’s executive body published a point-by-point refutation of the campaign’s false claims (while some of the protesters in Hungary simply changed the posters to read “Let’s Stop Moscow”). Brussels has also started a legal procedure, claiming that the anti-CEU bill violated both EU law regulating the common market—such as freedom to provide services—and fundamental EU values such as academic freedom. The EU commissioner presenting the case, the Dutch Social Democrat Frans Timmermans, was answered in the European Parliament by Orbán himself, who yet again charged that his country needed to be defended against an American speculator who had ruined the lives of millions. Timmermans, in an interview with a German weekly, said that Orbán’s rhetoric was anti-Semitic. 

At a crucial meeting in Brussels at the end of April, the EPP leaders seemed to let Orbán off the hook one more time. “They told me to behave,” Orbán said to a reporter from The Economist afterward, theatrically snapping to attention. To Hungarian journalists, he explained that he would continue the fight for the country’s national interests. The EPP leaders had also taken Orbán to task for the “Stop Brussels” campaign (which the Hungarian prime minister disingenuously described as a good-faith contribution to reforming the EU). The same weekend as the EPP meeting, a new ad aired on Hungarian TV, suggesting that Brussels bureaucrats, supported by Soros, were trying to force Hungary to take in more illegal immigrants.

In view of this steady escalation of Orbán’s attacks on the EU, some of his old Christian Democratic allies might at last be reconsidering their support. After all, they criticize far-right populists like Marine Le Pen for using anti-European language—and Orbán’s language is much the same. One EPP politician called on Orbán’s party to “go, just go.” On May 17, a majority in the European Parliament voted for a resolution to repeal the CEU law, withdraw the law about NGOs, and suspend the rights of the Hungarian government inside the EU—a very strong signal, which, however, will have no immediate practical effect. More EPP members voted for the resolution or abstained than voted against—though the leader of the group, the German CSU politician Manfred Weber, decided still to support Orbán. In the run-up to the federal elections in September, Merkel will be under fire from a rival with impeccable pro-European credentials, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz—a former president of the European Parliament—so she would have every incentive to prove her support of European values by getting rid of Orbán. 

Contrary to what Orbán suggests (or, rather, what he seeks to create through his anti-Brussels campaign), Hungary is by no measure a country of euroskeptics. The CEU is a symbol of integration into the EU and the West more broadly. When they joined the Union, Eastern European citizens thought they were finally safe from authoritarianism. In theory at least, that leaves more room for outsiders to pressure the government. An exit from the EU, or Huxit, is an empty threat, and Hungarians do not want to be the black sheep of Europe. The demonstrators keep shouting “Europa, Europa” and at one point hoisted an EU flag on a public building (such flags have disappeared from government buildings in Hungary); what is entirely normal, utterly unnoticed symbolism in other EU countries has become a subversive act under Orbán. 

Far-right populists like Orbán always seek out confrontation; they want to create an atmosphere where citizens become convinced that the nation is threated by enemies inside and outside. They try to discredit protest with the old Putin (and now Trump) strategy of claiming that everyone on the street is just a “paid protester,” as Trump put it in a tweet about the demonstrations against his Muslim travel ban. In a perverse way, protest can be useful for populists; they can gloat, as many members of the Hungarian government now do, that the shadowy networks dedicated to undermining the nation have at last been brought out into the open. Still, populists have to be careful not to let their culture wars get out of hand. Orbán may well have overreached in starting confrontations with civil society, the EU, Merkel, and the US all at once. His poll numbers have gone down significantly since the attack on the CEU started, and a new party of young liberals called Momentum has clearly been emboldened by the protests. Whether this could mean a loss at the national elections in 2018 remains doubtful. Fidesz has long made sure that electoral laws and gerrymandering work in its favor and, in any case, benefits from the fact that the opposition remains highly fragmented. 

And the CEU? Even if the EU institutions, the EPP, and, not least, the US decide to increase the pressure on the Hungarian government, it may well be too late. For Orbán, the stakes have become very high and very personal—it’s him against Soros, the enemy of the nation, and his henchmen freely use the language of “war.” But Orbán does not even have to win the war; he only has to not lose it, and time appears to be on his side: after all, the EU’s legal procedures tend to drag on, and the EPP has made it clear that it will not take any real action before the EU has conclusively pronounced on Budapest’s compliance, or lack thereof, with EU regulations. No university can operate under a cloud of uncertainty that may cost it potential students and faculty. If the CEU moves—already there is talk of Vienna and Prague as alternative locations—it will be to the shame of all those who believe in liberal democratic ideals. For the first time in Europe since World War II, a university will have been closed for political reasons.

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