Will the CEU seal Orbán's fate?

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest at the closure of the Central European University (CEU). The university founded by US billionaire George Soros is not active in the US and thus fails to meet the criteria of a new law passed by Viktor Orbán's government. Commentators hope that the European conservatives will finally withdraw their support for their fellow party member.

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La Repubblica (IT) /

Appeasement has to stop

The European Commission has threatened to launch breach of contract proceedings against Hungary over the controversial university law. The EPP Group in the European Parliament must finally distance itself from Orbán, historian Timothy Garton Ash writes in a guest commentary for La Repubblica:

“What reaction do we see from the leaders of Europe’s centre-right, who rightly claim to be the heirs of the Christian Democratic founding fathers of the European Union? They wring their hands. They grimace. They make stern phone calls to their friend Viktor. … 'Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity,' tweeted Manfred Weber head of the EPP group in the European parliament, adding '@EPPGroup will defend this at any cost'. At any cost, that is, except losing the 12 loyal Fidesz MEPs who give the EPP a clear majority over the other major political grouping, of the centre-left, and therefore also first dibs on top jobs. So instead they pass the buck to the European commission.”

Blog euinside (BG) /

EPP finally turning its back on Orbán

The EPP is slowly but surely giving up its support for the Hungarian prime minister, Adelina Marini observes in her blog euinside:

“The EPP turned a blind eye when Orbán curtailed media freedom and the independence of Hungary's central bank, and even when he announced his intention of building an illiberal state modelled on Russia, Turkey and China. … But now the highest level of the EPP has reacted to the university law. Its president Joseph Daul wrote on Twitter that it was vital to respect academic freedom and autonomy as a guarantee for openness and pluralism in Hungarian society. The chairman of the EPP Group, Manfred Weber, wants the law to be examined by the EU Commission. And there is even talk of ending Fidesz's membership.”

Magyar Hírlap (HU) /

Government's opponents will stop at nothing

The real issue behind the closing of the CEU has been distorted to criticise the Hungarian government, the pro-government daily Magyar Hírlap believes:

“With the Internet tax one can still see why people demonstrated en masse. The case of the CEU, however, is completely different. It has been hyped and distorted to get as many people as possible to demonstrate against the government. Basically the whole question is whether a university accredited in Budapest should be able to grant American diplomas if it's not affiliated directly with an American higher education institute. In and of itself, the issue sounds pretty straightforward. A majority of people would automatically say: 'Of course it shouldn't be able to grant American diplomas. Why should it?' But the aggressive campaign of distortion is making the government's decision look like a dictatorial battle against freedom and liberalism.”

Le Temps (CH) /

Hungarians don't want to be EU's black sheep

Orbán may suffer a major defeat with his anti-European and illiberal policies, political scientist and populism expert Jan-Werner Müller explains in Le Temps:

“Contrary to what Orbán is suggesting (or rather what he's trying to achieve with his anti-Brussels campaign), Hungary is by no means a country of Eurosceptics. ... When they joined the EU, the citizens of Eastern Europe believed they were finally immune to authoritarianism. That's precisely what is enabling the 'outsiders' to exert pressure on the government. The 'Huxit' is an empty threat: the Hungarians don't want to be the black sheep of Europe. Contrary to what people in Europe have come to believe recently, the populists are not always victorious. Orbán could turn out to be much more vulnerable than he seems if the liberal democrats can summon the necessary political will.”

Gazeta Wyborcza (PL) /

Memories of 1956 still alive

Orbán should not underestimate the Hungarians' desire for freedom, Gazeta Wyborcza points out:

“The Fidesz politicians criticise the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Transparency International because they are tired of their constant admonishments to respect human rights. And they don't like the reports condemning corruption either. In the past Putin has proceeded in the same way as they are now - in order to divert attention from the problems in his own country. He spread nationalist slogans among his people, cracked down on the media and then upped the pressure on the NGOs. All that may work in Russia. But it won't work in Hungary, where the desire for freedom is too great. The memories of the uprising of 1956 are still alive. It's hard to believe that Orbán himself led student protests in the 1980s, when the country was trying to break free from the shackles of communism.”

24.hu (HU) /

Fidesz's strategy could pay off

The government's initiative against the CEU is by no means an unreflected move, writes Péter Pető, former editor of the anti-government daily Népszabadság which was shut down last year, on the web portal 24.hu:

“It would be wrong to assume that Viktor Orbán didn't carefully consider the move against the CEU. Apparently irrational steps can very quickly turn out to be the product of a political strategy. When, for example, Népszabadság newspaper was closed down initially it looked like an irrational action: the liquidation of a 60-year-old institution with steadily sinking reader numbers didn't seem logical in view of the international outcry it provoked. Yet Orbán's strategy worked back then: the anger waned and the ruling party Fidesz's popularity remained intact. The decisive question now is whether this strategy will work regarding in the case of the CEU, too.”

Der Standard (AT) /

Orbán becoming a threat to EU

It's high time the EU put a stop to Viktor Orbán's anti-democratic policies, Der Standard urges:

“The dismantlement of democracy in Hungary and the recent crusades against NGOs and the CEU contradict the values of the EU. Up to now the EU's stance vis-à-vis the brazen actions in Hungary has been passive and cowardly. This will lead to its ruin. Orbán has long since claimed the right to a leading role in Europe, presenting himself as a 'tribune of the people' also for those Europeans in the West who in their uncertainty have become susceptible to the siren calls of the populists. If Europe doesn't take action against the false prophet in Budapest soon, together with his populist soulmates he will destroy this Europe.”

Mérce (HU) /

Young Hungarians have had enough

The mass demonstrations on the weekend may have triggered an avalanche that ends up burying the Orbán regime, journalist Attila Kálmán writes on opinion portal Kettős Mérce:

“These youths are determined to stand up to the government. The mass demonstrations on the weekend opened their eyes to the fact that they needn't fight alone, but can march together toward change. You often hear people saying at demonstrations that 'Yet again, nothing's happened!' On the weekend, however, everyone felt that something is happening: we're here, there are many of us, and we've had enough! If the authorities react with cynicism once again, the next time a hundred thousand people will take to the streets. Because by the looks of things the demonstrators want to go all out. Either the regime goes or they will.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

One more step towards an illiberal state

No wonder billionaire George Soros' CEU and Open Society Foundations are a thorn in the side of Viktor Orbán's government, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung explains:

“Many NGOs backed by the Open Society Foundations are among the government's fiercest critics. In supporting cosmopolitanism and pluralism, the billionaire himself stands for the very opposite of Orbán's ideal. So the attacks on civil rights organisations financed from abroad are the next step in the direction of an illiberal state. ... The unexpectedly large number of people who once again turned out to demonstrate on Sunday no doubt made an impression on Orbán. They're concerned not only about the CEU but also about defending research, rationality and intellectualism: values we normally take for granted but which are endangered in an illiberal state.”

Mandiner (HU) /

CEU should stay despite its shortcomings

Although the CEU is by no means as wonderful as it is portrayed as being it would be a shame it it left Hungary, journalist Zsolt Jeszenszky writes on the opinion portal Mandiner:

“Despite the impression it tries to convey, the CEU is by no means an institution that offers first rate education, at which valuable teaching and research takes place and which contributes to making the world a better place. It's not just an elite ghetto where only the privileged and wealthy can study, but also part of a highly tendentious global network at the service of specific ideological interests and goals, firmly focused on the hegemony of a certain global order. Nevertheless of course it has a right to exist, since much of its work is extremely helpful. For this reason it would be a shame if the CEU had to leave Hungary.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

EPP risking Europe's credibility

The European People's Party [EPP] must finally stand up to the Hungarian prime minister, the Süddeutsche Zeitung demands:

“In its dealings with Orbán the EPP is experiencing on a not so much smaller scale what the EU is experiencing on a large one: the conflict between interests and values. ... It is legitimate to offer even staunch conservatives a political home. But this becomes reprehensible once the boundaries between conservatism and nationalism become blurred. For the EU this boundary is of existential importance because the European Union cannot survive purely as a community of common interests. Without its basic values it will degenerate into a cynical club lacking in cohesion. Leaders are fond of stressing this at times of celebration like the recent 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties. The case of Fidesz provides CDU boss Angela Merkel and her party colleagues with the opportunity to put this into practice.”

Postimees (EE) /

Orbán system on the verge of collapse

The CEU is a victim of the Hungarian government's battle to survive, Martin Mölder, a doctoral student at the CEU, writes in Postimees:

“Viktor Orbán's government uses nationalist, anti-European rhetoric to gain support. Since it took power in 2010 it has systematically curtailed and influenced independent courts, media and civil society. Orbàn's role models are Putin and Erdoğan, his goal is to create a state in which the governing party has unlimited political control. A system based on corrupt ties is being doused with an ideological sauce. The CEU stood symbolically in Orbán's way. ... This is not an ideological battle, but the fight for survival of a corrupt system.”

Contributors (RO) /

Romania following Hungary into servitude

In Romania, too, propaganda against George Soros is spreading, political scientist Tereza-Brindusa Palade comments on blog platform Contributors:

“Something similar seems to be playing out in Romania. Here, too, servitude is the trend and its negative side effects seem similar to those in Budapest. … There is no 'Soros university' in Bucharest, but the anti-Soros rhetoric of the leadership, [the social democratic ruling party] the PSD, is just as repugnant as that used by the Fidesz leaders, even if in Romania it hasn't yet been translated into concrete policies to the same extent. … The resistance to the attempts to infiltrate democracy and the rule of law with 'patriotic' arguments must remain dynamic and alert. The CEU is an academic symbol of pluralist democracy in Eastern Europe - the system of political values that allows dialogue, freedom of expression and critical thinking. If it falls victim to Orbán's policies, other targets will be next.”

Magyar Nemzet (HU) /

Iron-fisted policies win out

The Hungarians did not put up enough of a fight, Magyar Nemzet complains:

“The passing of the 'CEU law' could have been prevented by the Hungarian youths who rose up against the introduction of an Internet tax and challenged Budapest's bid for the 2024 Olympics. There was rejoicing on the Internet over the fact that a few thousand people demonstrated for the CEU on the weekend. But that is precious little. ... Many people thought that in attacking the CEU Orbán was biting off more than he could chew. But they were wrong. The indignation of the Western world, the tiny demonstrations and the skimpy human chain haven't achieved a thing. Even the obligatory comparisons with Putin fell flat. Iron-fisted politics understands nothing but iron-fisted language. And it immediately detects its opponents' weaknesses. That's what makes it so successful. The question now is: where will the axe fall next?”

Der Standard (AT) /

Vienna shows self-interest instead of solidarity

Vienna's deputy mayor has said that the CEU can relocate to the Austrian capital if it wants to. This is by no means a selfless gesture, Der Standard fumes:

“Instead of showing solidarity with protesters from the academic world or offering legal help so the CEU can clear the new legislative hurdles, the message from Vienna's deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou and Oliver Vitouch, president of Universities Austria, is 'Just come to Vienna!' ... The CEU was founded after the fall of the Iron Curtain by George Soros to strengthen civil society in the post-communist states. It belongs in Budapest, Warsaw or Prague, not in Vienna. Even if Vassilakou claims her offer was not an attempt to entice the university, that's exactly what it was. Austria should not try to benefit from the woes that beset liberal Hungary. And it's time the government also took a stand on the issue: without ulterior motives and aimed at the CEU remaining in Budapest.”

Magyar Nemzet (HU) /

New fodder for far-right sympathisers

The Orbán government's main motivation in the CEU affair is giving its far-right voters a new enemy to focus on, the government-critical daily Magyar Nemzet explains:

“The government's statements on the CEU are confused. On the one hand it plays down the problem by saying that all the CEU needs to do is follow the rules and nothing will happen to it. On the other it overshoots its mark by talking about a 'bogus university' that awards 'bogus degrees'. ... What we see here is in fact a long-established pattern on the part of the government: it constantly gives its far-right sympathisers new fodder to keep them in line. Together with the government media, these sympathisers once again have a chance to seize on the issue in a loud and vulgar way. ... Once again the government is fuelling negative emotions that have nothing to do with the real issue at hand, in this case the CEU.”

Die Welt (DE) /

EU accepts democracy deficit without a whimper

The EU is being far too lenient with Hungary, Die Welt criticises:

“Brussels can't find a way to counter the Hungarian prime minister's legalist tricks. ... The EU even put up with Orbán introducing press censorship in 2011, right at the start of the Hungarian EU Council presidency. In the EU, budget deficits are punished but democratic deficits are accepted without protest. The Brexit has driven the Brussels bureaucrats to start thinking about punishments for 'perfidious Albion', and there is no shortage of indignation at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But the EU's outrage at the dismantling of democracy in its midst is limited. Faced with the autocrat Orbán it timidly evokes the values that supposedly hold Europe together. Enough is enough. Values that are merely evoked but not fought for aren't worth anything.”

hvg (HU) /

Systematic attacks on universities

The action being taken against the CEU is just a continuation of a campaign launched by the Orbán government long ago against what it considers the odious humanistic university system, the liberal weekly paper hvg points out:

“These gangsters have already robbed the state universities of their autonomy, now they want to topple the last academic bastion, the CEU. ... Unimpeded academic work and teaching have always been a rarity in Hungary, above all in subjects that have to do with topics of high social relevance. Those branches of the social sciences which on the one hand deal with the problems arising in connection with the refugee crisis and on the other hand provide orientation regarding the cohabitation of different cultures - for example cultural anthropology or intercultural psychology - have been systematically cut back. To say nothing of journalism. That's why all we have today is the same old state-censored mishmash.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Hungary will pay dearly

The Hungarian government's attacks on the renowned CEU are yet another scandalous move, the Süddeutsche Zeitung comments:

“It's almost as if the government in Budapest were deliberately aiming to provoke outrage with its attacks against refugees, aid organisations, foreign universities and the country's international community just so that Victor Orbán can show the world: I'll pick a fight with absolutely anyone. Last week he struck fear into the hearts of the non-government organisations - an attack against civil society. This week began with another broken taboo when the Convention on Human Rights was called into question - an attack against the EU. And on Wednesday the long anticipated attack against the CEU began, the Central European University, which is funded by Orbán's favourite enemy George Soros. … But perhaps this time Orbán has gone too far. He may be hoping that the anti-liberal US President Donald Trump will back him. But Hungary will pay a high price for an attack against such a renowned member of the academic world.”

Die Presse (AT) /

Parallels with the 1930s

As in the 1930s, liberal ideas are once again pitched against a model that views minorities and cosmopolitan elites with animosity, warns author and historian Ian Buruma in Die Presse.

“Indeed, Soros might be described as the personification of 'the West'. ... He is everything that nativists and anti-Semites hate: rich, cosmopolitan, Jewish, and a liberal dedicated to what Karl Popper, yet another child of Jewish origin from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called 'the open society.' When the enemies of the open society were threatening Europe during the 1930s, there was at least a powerful counter model in Britain, and especially the US. ... Victims of continental European totalitarianism could still find refuge in that 'West,' and even those who couldn't still knew that fascists and Nazis had formidable enemies in London and Washington. We now live in a very different world.”

More opinions

Ouest-France (FR) / 11 April 2017
  Support fight for freedom and peace (in French)