The National Assembly of Hungary has adopted legislation to effectively rid the country of Central European University, despite a growing domestic and international bloc of opposition to the measures. The bill, proposed last Tuesday and made more stringent with a modification on Monday, would impose unfulfillable requirements on CEU, which could strip it of its Hungarian accreditation.
The assembly voted 123-38 to approve the legislation, the majority of “yes” votes coming from MPs of the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition. In the days leading up to the vote, Fidesz politicians, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, accused CEU of “cheating.” Orbán declared in a radio interview on Friday that, “in Hungary, it doesn’t matter if someone is a billionaire, no one is above the law. This university must also abide by the law.”
But the Hungarian Educational Authority (Oktatási Hivatal) informed CEU on Friday that the university was in compliance with all existing Hungarian higher education regulations, suggesting that the government aimed to draw the university into non-compliance with the specifically tailored bill it passed Tuesday afternoon.
It’s not about CEU
Despite widespread outcry over the proposed legislation, the Fidesz government held to its plans to modify the higher education law, voting on Monday for an emergency procedure that would fast-track a parliamentary vote on the legislation, leading to the expedited vote on Tuesday afternoon.
Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog, who initially submitted the bill, opened Tuesday’s debate in parliament.
“It is in Hungary’s interest that there should be as many autonomous higher education institutions as possible,” Balog said paradoxically, and repeated the assertion of other Fidesz-KDNP officials that an investigation by the Education Authority had found numerous foreign universities to be violating Hungarian higher education regulations, among them CEU.
But then Balog, seemingly in contradiction to his previous statement that CEU was not being specifically targeted, emphasized the importance of resisting the machinations of George Soros in Hungary.
“It is regrettable that George Soros is trying to exert influence on the Hungarian government,” Balog said before the assembly. According to Balog, Soros has “begun a worldwide smear campaign” against Hungary, and the protests erupting around the Lex CEU legislation “reveal the power of his network.”
“We are preventing the activity of George Soros’ organizations, the quasi-civil agent organizations,” Balog declared. He then quoted a secret letter Soros reportedly sent to Hungary’s then-education minister Bálint Magyar in 2004, which reputedly requests special legal exemptions for CEU.
Other MPs and delegation representatives then addressed the assembly, including former education minister István Hiller (Hungarian Socialist Party/MSZP), who condemned the bill, arguing it was contrary to the interests of the country. Hiller called on Fidesz members to simply acknowledge that they want to see CEU leave the country, and not to disguise their political objectives as technical decisions.
Hiller said the government’s problems concerning CEU are not even in the top ten problems facing Hungarian higher education.
Politics Can Be Different (LMP) co-chair Bernadett Szél called the bill a “witch-hunt against academic freedom,” and accused the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition of embodying the legacy of the darkest periods of communism, and mimicking the destruction of higher education as practiced in Russia and Turkey. She said the move had “crossed a red line,” and Orbán was behaving “like an offended puffed-up pocket dictator.” She likened the threats to CEU to the closure of the University of St. Petersburg in Russia, saying, “They haven’t done anything else, they just copied Putin’s pattern.” She dismissed Fidesz’s claims that there is “chaos” inside CEU, arguing that there is only education going on with independent students and educators.
Együtt (Together) MP Szabolcs Szabó said the Fidesz-KDNP coalition should “be ashamed of themselves” for singling out CEU purely to create an enemy in the run-up to the 2018 national elections.
MSZP MP Gergely Bárándy accused Fidesz of mimicking practices in Russia and practicing “kulturkampf.”
Együtt MP Zsuzsanna Szelényi likened the bill to “book burning.”
Even radical-right party Jobbik voiced opposition to the higher education bill. Delegation representative István Szávay said that while his party considers everything George Soros represents to be damaging, “even further from us is your Bolshevik way of using power and not allowing any debate.”
“Hungary’s healthcare and education is in ruins but you always need to find an external enemy to point to, and this time it is CEU,” Szávay said. “I repeat: we are not standing with CEU but against your way of using power, because we know the next victim will be something else. In five days you could never say what exactly is illegal about CEU and what is the irregularity you cite, because there’s none until this law.”
Szávay accused Fidesz of being the country’s “Soros party,” and for being responsible for welcoming the Hungarian-American billionaire into the country “with open arms,” alluding to numerous high-ranking Fidesz officials’ benefiting from Soros-funded scholarships in the 1980s. Szávay cited government spokesman Zoltán Kovács’s CEU PhD, and argued that if CEU is a fake university, then Kovács’s PhD is fake and should be returned.
But MPs from Fidesz-KDNP argued against CEU specifically, seeming to depart from earlier arguments that the legal measures were not targeted at what many party officials have insisted on calling “Soros University.”
KDNP MP István Hollik accused Soros’ vast international network of tricking tens of thousands around the world, including Nobel laureates, into raising their voices against Fidesz’s intentions with the bill.
Fidesz MP László Vécsey argued that “CEU gains undue situational advantages that cannot be tolerated.”
KDNP MP Imre Vejkey told parliament that Hungary would not bend to international pressure as those are attempts to undermine Hungary’s national sovereignty.
Opposition keeps rolling in
In a statement released to the public on Monday, the Hungarian Conference of Rectors expressed its regret that the government had not consulted with the body before proposing the bill.
While agreeing that legal discrepancies exist in the operation of foreign universities in Hungary, the rectors conference concluded that “the need for regulation must not lead to the closing of the high-quality education and research being performed at Hungarian higher education institutions, nor should it lead to the shrinking of space for Hungarian universities to take part in international collaborations.”
Thousands of academics from around the world have signed open letters calling on the Hungarian government to drop the bill. A running counter on 444.hu put the total number of “those foreign and Hungarian scientists, Nobel prize winners, teachers, students and sympathizers that have protested in some form against Lex CEU” at 41,877 at the time of this writing. Some 10,000 people marched in Budapest on Sunday afternoon in support of CEU, and another protest is planned for Tuesday with the passage of the bill.
German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier, speaking at a session of the European Parliament on Tuesday, commented on CEU, saying: “Europe cannot remain silent while the air is sucked away from civil organizations or the scientific world, as is now happening with Central European University in Budapest.”
Steinmeier’s comments received a standing ovation. Fidesz’s European Parliament leader József Szájer did not rise to his feet but was observed applauding.