A silver lining in 'illiberal' Hungary
The looming decision on whether to close the prestigious Central European University (CEU), a symbol of the resistance in Hungary, is bringing together the opposition to forge an innovative plan to end the âOrbÃ¡nianâ state, EURACTIV.com reports from Budapest.
Among the long list of controversial decisions taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n, no other issue has provoked such a political earthquake like his efforts to close down the CEU.
Since the FIdesz leader took power in 2010, the European Commission and the European Parliament have accused him of eroding the rule of law and fundamental freedoms due to his attacks against the media, harassment of NGOs and neglecting Hungaryâs Roma community.
Meanwhile, corruption remains widespread in the country and key sectors of the economy are controlled by his allies.
MEPs trigger Article 7 against Hungary after evasive Juncker speech
MEPs voted en masse to trigger Article 7 proceedings against Hungary on Wednesday (12 September), although Jean-Claude Junckerâs early morning Strasbourg speech failed to send much of a clear signal against Budapestâs alleged rule of law violations.
But it was his attacks against the freedom of academia that were at the core of the sanctions procedure triggered by the Parliament last month (Article 7).
For the Hungarian government, the situation is pretty straightforward, based on the new Education law at the heart of the controversy.
The CEU âwould like to enjoy a privilege, not given to anybody. And that is a problem,â explains Hungaryâs Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Relations, ZoltÃ¡n KovÃ¡cs.
In a series of interviews with government officials, opposition leaders, experts and citizens, the American uni versity emerges as something bigger than its 423 faculty members and 1448 students from 117 countries.
But walking through the quiet corridors of its buildings at the heart of Budapest last Friday (5 October), it was hard to grasp that its fate had brought together the opposition for the first time, and inspired one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years in a country where big protests are now rare.
Navracsics: I am 'deeply interested' in keeping the CEU in Hungary
Viktor OrbÃ¡nâs offensive against the Central European University is at the core of the worsening relationship between Hungary and the EU institutions. But his man at the European Commission, Tibor Navracsics, insists that he is âdeeply interestedâ in keeping the university in Budapest.
European leaders, the Trump Administration, Nobel prize winners and even the commissioner f or Education and Culture, Tibor Navracsics, a member of Orbanâs party, have spoken against the closure of the American University.
âThe CEU has become a symbolâ, its pro-rector for Hungarian Affairs, Zsolt Enyedi, told this website in his office.
The prestigious school, founded in 1991 by investor and philanthropist George Soros to build âopen and democratic societiesâ, is a shining emblem against Orbanâs illiberal state. The last line of resistance, some said, together with some pockets of the judiciary.
But for Orban, the university also represents a symbol. It is Sorosâs stronghold in his nation. And the Hungarian-American investor represents the biggest threat to Christian Europe, Orbanâs political compass.
OrbÃ¡n names Soros and EU among those âattackingâ Hungary
In the annual State of the Union address on Friday (10 February) Hun garian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n listed among those who âattackedâ his country billionaire George Soros and the European Union.
He blamed Soros of âfloodingâ Europe with refugees (or migrants as he said). The EU was part of the âSoros planâ through the refugee quota imposed on the member states.
Soros, the enemy
Orban has frequently boosted his popularity by battling enemies such as the IMF, banks, and Brussels. But his bitter fight with Soros, the man who paid for his studies, has a deeper meaning.
He portrayed the magnate as the evil face of all the existential threats to Hungary. And voters believe him.
Fideszâs propaganda machine, including a combination of billboards and regional media controlled by allies, spreads his narrative very efficiently across the country and cements its supermajorities in the Parliament.
OrbÃ¡n: Hungary has no big issue with EU, it has a problem with Soros
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n said he was committed to the EU and accused US billionaire George Soros of âattackingâ his country yesterday (26 April) as he defended a law that could close down a university founded by the philanthropist.
âWhat Soros is doing at the CEU is not goodâ¦what he is doing to the whole Europeâ, said Zsofia, visiting Budapest from the surroundings for a cosmetic fair.
âAre you a liberal? Because I donât like gipsies, gay people or migrantsâ, added her colleague Dorina.
Only the capital resists Orbanâs dominance. âBudapest is the last big battle, where the old influencers, the intellectuals remainâ, explained Katta TÃ¼ttÃ¶, a socialist local representative in the District 12 of the city.
Having a broader perspective as an active member of the Socialist party at national and European politics, TÃ¼ttÃ¶ admitted t o the weakness of the opposition and its inability to break Orbanâs political narrative.
âWe had a lot of discussionsâ¦ but we didnât find a way outâ, she confessed over tea in front of the splendid Parliament building on a sunny afternoon.
She argued that Hungarians deal very badly with insecurity. And Orban has claimed for himself the position of protector-in-chief.
He not only guarantees that Hungary will not become a melting pot of migrants and Muslims, but also that Hungarians will not lose their jobs because of the digital revolution.
Orbanâs total control of the political discourse and the resources to amplify the message is only part of the problem.
For Andras Vertes, executive chairman of GKI economic research, the issue is that âthe opposition parties are small, different and very weak.â
The situation only gets worse, admits TÃ¼ttÃ¶, because the fragmentation keeps growing as new parties pop up.
Daniel Berg is partly responsible for that as one of the founders of âMomentumâ. But as he explained in the brand new offices, the new pro-European and liberal party, similar to Macronâs En Marche or Spainâs Ciudadanos, is responding to past mistakes to counter Fidesz.
âThe opposition was captured by Orban and his narrativeâ, he explained.
The roots of Momentum are traced back to social activism. Berg was one of the organisers of the protest against the closure of CEU last year, where he was a student.
Budapest march in support of Soros-founded university
Thousands of demonstrators marched in Budapest yesterday (2 April) in support of a university founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros that says Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡nâs government wants to push it out of Hungary.
Between 50.0000 and 80 .000 people, according to the organisers, took the streets in defence of the university, one of the largest demonstrations in recent years.
Berg also travelled to the US to lobby senators and congressmen to support the school.
âEverything has been done at diplomatic level,â he said recalling the backing gathered in the US, the EU institutions, member states or Nobel prizes.
âBut the Government doesnât care about it,â he lamented.
If external pressure seems insufficient to convince Orban to maintain the American university, the efforts made by the centre also seemed to go to waste.
According to the new Education Law, every foreign university should provide higher education programmes in their motherland recognised by their state.
CEU reached an agreement with Bard College in New York last year to teach some of their courses across the Atlantic. This year, the first students completed their courses.
The state of New York sen t an email to the Hungarian government stating that CEUâs programmes are registered in their inventory and conducts educational activities there on Inequality analysis jointly with Bard College.
LÃ¡szlÃ³ Palkovics, then state secretary for education, and Deputy State Secretary KristÃ³f Altusz visited CEUÊ¼s New York facilities last April.
Hungarian university president: âI need the support of Europeâ
The head of a Budapest university pressured by Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n appealed to Brussels for help yesterday (25 April), a day before the European Commission will announce infringement procedures against Hungary, and when OrbÃ¡n will address MEPs.
âThe secretary of state told us that we met all the academic criteria. There was only one issue: the international agreement,â said Enyedi.
The new Education law also stipulates that foreign universities have to reach an agreement with the Hungarian government and the state âconcerning theoretical support for its operation in Hungaryâ.
At one point, Budapest and the State of New York were very close to signing an agreement, explained Enyedi. But abruptly, the Hungarian government mysteriously backtracked and no other contacts were made.
âOrban is not ready to tell the world that he is closing down the CEU,â explains the pro-rector. âHe would pretend it is an administrative issueâ.
And that is what Orbanâs spokesman repeats.
âIt is an administrative problem. Everybody knowsâ, Zoltan KovÃ¡cs said in his office not far from the university.
He knows the CEU corridors well because he obtained his Phd in History there.
The CEU is formed by two legal entities. The original one -American- and a Hungarian arm set up in 2004 by law.
But as Enyedi explained, the Hungarian arm cannot survive without the American one , the core of all its programmes.
The Hungarian senior officials that travelled to New York did did not raise any issue regarding the academic recognition. But KovÃ¡cs played down the American recognition.
âThey are not opening a second campus in the US. They made an agreement with Bard collegeâ¦ A letter of intent with Bard college is certainly not what fulfils the criteria,â he said.
The efforts made on one side to meet the standards set by the new law appear to be unanswered on the other side.
Although they are trying, âthat doesnât mean that they are going to find a way and it will fulfil the standards,â added KovÃ¡cs.
Enyedi said it is âbullshitâ that they are not fulfilling the academic requirements set by the law. The government doesnât dare to say in Hungary that the New York activities are not enough, he stressed.
The pro-rector knowns that the final verdict will depend neith er on the experts nor on the ministers.
It will be Orban who will take such a political decision by January 2019, according to his self-imposed deadline.
âWhat we are hearing is that nobody knows what he would doâ, Enyedi said.
He suspects that Orban will wait until he can obtain something from the EU institutions or Germany. If not, he will close the American branch of the CEU, bringing down the whole institution.
As the CEU is preparing for the worst, they are opening another campus in Vienna (Austria).
Under-threat Soros university thrown lifeline by other European cities
A Budapest university founded by billionaire George Soros, which is threatened with closure by Hungarian government legislation fast tracked today (4 April), has already received a number of offers from other EU countries to host the seat of learning.
When th e news broke last year that the CEU could be forced out of Hungary, they received many offers from around the world. Enyedi explained that the Vienna proposal was so appealing that they decided to set foot there as well regardless of the final outcome in Budapest.
Long and narrow path
Enyedi said that Orban wants to make a point. Despite international pressure or EU condemnation âhe is still the bossâ.
âHe can do whatever he wantsâ, he stressed.
The fate of CEU may be at his mercy, but his future is not in his hands, a hopeful opposition argued.
âNo regime lasts forever, it is up to us how long it lastsâ, said Berg.
Parties have already started to prepare their assault to crack the âOrbanianâ state.
âWe are already working on a way out of his narrative,â pointed out TÃ¼ttÃ¶.
Although she did not want to disclose many details, she explained that it would include âmost of the oppositionâ and it would have many legs, including social media and activities outside traditional political fora like the Parliament.
All the opposition parties, including the far-right party Jobbik, already teamed up last year to ask the Constitutional Court to review Orbanâs bill that aims to shut down CEU.
âIt was the first time all the opposition came together, it was a beautiful moment,â recalled Enyedi.
The plan is âa narrow path and it will take a long timeâ, TÃ¼ttÃ¶ admitted. But she hoped that opposition parties could organically start shaping the agenda and framing the discussion.
Berg agreed it would take time but gave hints of how to do it.
Momentum is already outreaching villages outside Budapest, engaging in local activities and community service, and addressing local issues.
At the same time, the opposition needs to get together in a âFrankensteinâ coalition. âWe need to find a minimum common denominatorâ, he stated.
For Berg, the agenda is pretty simple: getting rid of corruption, a pro-EU and pro-West orientation, and restoring the rule of law in the country.
âLooking at the numbers, the situation is not as bad as it seems,â explained GKIâs Vertes. During the last national elections held in April, a majority of people did not vote for Fidesz.
OrbÃ¡n wins legitimacy to continue challenging Brussels
Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n won a third straight term in power in Sunday elections (8 April) after his anti-immigration campaign message secured a strong majority for his party in parliament, granting him two-thirds of seats based on preliminary results.
However, the fragmentation of the opposition and the majority system helped Orban to obtain a new supermajority in the Parliament.
The opposition sees next yearâs local elections as a key trial to test whether their attempts to forge a united front and their approach to break the âOrbanianâ narrative could work.
The economy could also play a role. The three engines of recent growth (global momentum, EU funds and wage increases) will start to diminish in the next few years, said Vertes.
Hungary was the first nation rescued by the IMF and the EU after the crisis in 2008. Today, the country is growing above 4%, and salaries are growing at a rate of 10% but this will start to slow next year.
The flow of money was not used to transform the country but to enrich certain groups and Orbanâs allies.
âThere hasnât been any structural changeâ, Vertes pointed out.
When Hungary joined the EU was the third biggest economy in GDP per capita in the Eastern bloc, behind Slovenia and Czech Republic. Today itâs in 8th position.
Kovaks blamed the inherited situation of the country when they took over after the bailout.
European Commission steps up infringement procedures against Hungary
The Commission opened an infringement procedure against Hungary on Thursday (13 July) for its new law on foreign-funded NGOs, and went a step further in another infringement it had launched in April over the Higher Education Law, that seeks to close the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros.
For Vertes, the reason is the âmany bad decisionsâ taken by Orban. âHe worsened the situationâ. And chief among them he mentions the Education laws.
Orbanâs assault against CEU may be one too many. But as his opponents and critics recognised, he is a good strategist and clever politician. It is unclear what would be his final act in his fight against Soros.
âIf that [the decision] affects our freedoms and quality we have no choice but to leave,â said Eny edi.
But contrary to what he may have thought, his final strike against Soros would not mean the end of the resistance.Source: Google News Hungary | Netizen 24 Hungary