The Central European University, based in Budapest, is on course to become the first European university since 1945 to be closed by the state for ideological reasons. But street protests have erupted—and Orban's reign is increasingly being challengedby JP O' Malley / May 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Sunday 9th April, a crowd of 80,000 gathered in the grounds of Buda Castle in central Budapest. Young and old, they came draped in flags and colours of various persuasions. Some proudly held the red, white and green Hungarian tricolour; others were covered in the 12 yellow stars and blue of the European Union. Most carried placards or wore badges with the phrase #istandwithCEU or the Hungarian equivalent, #aCEUvalvagyok.
CEU is the Central European University, a postgraduate institution founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-born American financier George Soros. Located in Budapest, it has an international faculty and student body. The crowd was there to protest against an amendment to higher education legislation that was being fast-tracked through parliament. The amendment bans any university in Hungary from offering foreign-accredited degrees, unless it maintains a campus in the country where it is registered. CEU—registered in New York, but without an American campus—is the only educational institution fitting that description.
The protestors were set to march across the Chain Bridge over the Danube and on to the National Assembly building. Before they set off, Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of CEU, took to the makeshift stage. “I would like to emphasize that this isn’t just about one university,” said the Canadian academic and former politician. “It’s about the whole country and the freedom of its citizens to think and learn what they want. Because without free institutions and a free civil society, that is impossible.”
The feel-good factor was palpable. Yet the following afternoon, the new higher education legislation was signed by Hungarian president János Áder. The law could be struck down by the Constitutional Court, but since a majority of its judges were appointed by the current government, that seems unlikely. CEU, therefore, is on course to become the first European university since 1945 to be closed by the state for ideological reasons.
The closure would be a serious breach of EU law. The European Commission has sent a “letter of formal notice” to the Hungarian government, the first step in legal action. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has been defiant, appearing at the European Parliament on 26th April to deliver a scathing personal attack against Soros, who he called a “financial speculator.” But Orbán may eventually cave to EU pressure.