Academic pawns in the game of Orban v. Soros

Michael Ignatieff and the Central European University would not be obliged to move from Budapest to Vienna if they had kept out of politics

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George Soros: During the 2018 Hungarian election, Fidesz presented him as the symbolic leader of the opposition camp (NICCOLO CARRANTI CC BY-SA 3.0)

On October 25, the Rector of the Central European University (CEU), Michael Ignatieff, announced that unless the Hungarian government regularised the status of CEU by December 1, it would move to Vienna.

As so often with such stories — customarily presented in the Western media as a fight between good (the CEU) and evil (Orbán, Fidesz, the Hungarian government) — reality is infinitely more complex. There is indeed a contest between the CEU and the Hungarian government, but it’s far from being the simplified morality tale that is so widely propagated.

Matters began in 2005, when the CEU did a deal with the then left-wing government that it would be given a unique exception from the Hungarian education law and be able to grant both Hungarian and American diplomas. The American dimension of this arrangement was something free-floating, the CEU was registered in the US, but had no university presence there. But the new Hungarian education law of 2011 modernised the system and, inter alia, declared not unreasonably that all the 28 foreign institutions of higher education operating in Hungary would have to have a mother university in their country of origin. The CEU did not.

So when the Hungarian education office began its quinquennial review in 2016, it came upon the CEU’s anomalous status. Legally there were two CEUs. The CEU granted Hungarian diplomas (quite legally) and simultaneously American ones without the CEU having a US mother university. At this stage, the relationship between Hungary and the CEU was an administrative disagreement, which could certainly have been resolved at that level had there been the will to do so. The difficulty of there not being a US-based mother university could certainly have been circumvented. That’s what technocracies are for.

But at that point, the CEU opted to see dispute not as technocratic, but as political. The CEU is a private foundation supported by George Soros, but Soros also finances a range of NGOs and think-tanks that have moved into the political vacuum left behind the collapse of the left-wing opposition to Fidesz. The CEU was and was seen as a part of this left-wing anti-Fidesz constellation. Thereby, with the coming into force of the new law, a political motive has been neatly attributed to the Hungarian government.

At the same time, for some observers there is an uncanny parallel with the European University at St Petersburg (EUSP), which has faced regular harassment from the Russian authorities. Parallels are meat and drink to the devotees of conspiracy theories, so there are those who readily equate the fate of the two institutions, calmly eliding the differences. Post hoc is not propter hoc; likewise, simul hoc isn’t propter hoc either.

The Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Education and Science, known as the Rosobrnadzor, decided to annul the educational licence of the EUSP. And over and above that, the EUSP has been also facing another dispute over its building lease with the city government in St Petersburg. There are allegations that it made certain alterations to the palace building it occupies without the approval of the historical commission.

So if you are a believer in the proposition that there is no such thing as coincidence or happenstance, then you will very likely see the case of the CEU and the EUSP as linked in some obscure way. I attended a conference in Munich last February that expressly discussed the two cases in parallel. Of course, the similarity was entirely contrived. The CEU-Hungary has never been in any danger of closing. Proper scrutiny will show that the dispute between the CEU and Fidesz only resembles the fate of the EUSP superficially. The nexus is different. There is no connection between the two institutions, indeed it is seriously misleading to see them jointly if one wants to understand the power realities of the CEU and Hungary.

It was in the spring of 2017, that the CEU went for the political option, in the belief presumably that the Hungarian government would cave in under international pressure. CEU graduates were mobilised to support their alma mater and put pressure on the Hungarian government.

This was a political error for another reason. Hungarian parliamentary elections were due (and held) in the spring of 2018 and unless the CEU depoliticised itself, downplayed the Soros connection and generally kept a low profile, it would get caught in the slipstream of the elections, as the Soros-funded NGOs did. Fidesz’s election campaign placed Soros at its centre, as the symbolic leader of the left-wing, globalist, anti-Fidesz camp. Something similar is happening currently, with the European Parliament elections to be held in May 2019. Soros will figure prominently as a negative target. Globalism can be seen as an ideology that places the security and free movement of capital above all else — all states should be fearful of the bond market — and welcomes the complexity that makes it ever harder to engage politically with money flows. Soros fits well into this. As Hungary is looking to build up its economic strength, the clash with Soros and globalism is quite logical.

To come back to the CEU, Ignatieff went to Brussels in the expectation that the European Union would solve his problems. He was rapturously received — the Fidesz government is thoroughly unpopular in EU circles, and this is reciprocated by Budapest — but Ignatieff was mistaken in his belief that the EU could do much to help. Education is a member state competence, so the best that the EU can do, and is doing, is to launch infringement procedures of a technical nature, e.g. not respecting EU competition law and service provision, with the aim of getting Hungary to amend its law on higher education. The case will eventually be decided by the European Court of Justice.

There is another thought to be added here. Ignatieff was and is a liberal, he led the liberals in Canada (to electoral defeat), so quite predictably he was feted by the liberal group in the European Parliament. Ever since 2014 at the latest, a noteworthy element of the liberals’ platform has been the demand to have Fidesz expelled from the European People’s Party (EPP). One might think it somewhat odd for one European party family to tell another who its members should be, but if so, that didn’t trouble the liberals at all.

This is where Ignatieff comes in. By going to Brussels to mobilise support as he did, there is a just a whiff of suspicion that the liberals used him as a weapon against Fidesz, knowing that any suggestion that a university was being threatened with closure would be seen as rather disturbing by the EPP and thereby make life difficult for Fidesz. This did, in fact, happen. The CEU-Fidesz connection can also be placed in the Left’s preparations for the 2019 European elections. Both the liberals and the socialist vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, have made statements that can be read this way. In that respect, the CEU came to be deployed instrumentally in European party politics. Did Ignatieff know this? Hard to know. But obviously he did not object.

Whatever the case, at some stage in 2017 seemingly, the CEU decided to go for the exit option and leave Budapest, unless the Hungarian government conceded. There was never any chance of this once the matter had become political and had become a conflict between Ignatieff and the Fidesz government. The exit option was Vienna, where the CEU purchased the empty Otto Wagner Hospital early in 2018, but the negotiations to this end must have begun well before that.

Legally, as noted, the CEU is two universities, one American and one Hungarian. The Hungarian part of the CEU — known by its Hungarian name of Közép-Európai Egyetem — will stay in Budapest, and offer Hungarian diplomas, but the American part of the CEU will leave Budapest and its diplomas will be awarded in Vienna. Indeed, the CEU Board formally announced this at the end of October.

Furthermore, a minor but revealing curiosity can be seen in the story, but one has to look carefully. If the CEU really was as certain of its legal position as it claimed to be, why did it never appeal against the education law to the Hungarian Constitutional Court? It is not unreasonable to conclude that the CEU understood that its legal position was not as stable as it claimed and blamed the Hungarian government. It will be interesting to see if the CEU encounters any legal problems in Austria. (A small footnote here, one of the governing parties in Austria is the right-wing FPÖ and one of its spokesmen has already declared that as far as he’s concerned, the CEU is something they could do without.)

The position of the Hungarian government was made very clear by a senior minister, to the effect that the government would not accept an ultimatum, that the CEU-Hungary would, of course, stay in Budapest, but the CEU-US had not complied with the legislation in force. The US campus of the CEU, so say the Hungarian media and the minister, consists of a small house. Not much of a campus, one might be tempted to add. So Vienna it is. And the CEU-US, as a third country institution, cannot participate in EU-funded research programmes, even while the CEU-Hungary has done quite well in this area. In effect, the CEU has thrown in the towel.

Looking at the CEU saga from a detached perspective, a number of lessons emerge. First, if you are going to pick a fight, make sure that you are, at best, evenly matched. A university can never win against a sovereign state; a few minutes with Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War would have made this self-evident. Second, if you are a private university, stay out of the politics of the country of location. By all means establish friendly relations with the political elite, but don’t find yourself in a position where you come to be seen as a part of the surrogate opposition, as the CEU came to be.

Third, don’t make yourself the exceptional case. When other similar institutions are in the same position as you yourself, but are ready to conform to the requirements of the location state, don’t demand exceptional status; doing so, not only isolates you, but puts you in the position of relying on privilege. There were 28 such foreign-founded institutions in Hungary and agreement was reached with 27 of them. Why should the CEU be the exception?

It follows, or should, that even if the government in power is deeply distasteful to you, you still can’t afford to treat it as a hostile entity. And, there were many in the CEU who saw their relationship to the government as a war and dismissed alternative views as those of “useful idiots”. (A disclosure here: this includes me, I was the recipient of an open letter along these lines and it was also insinuated that my neutral attitude to the CEU was because decades ago the CEU was one of several institutions that had turned me down for a  job. I’d got over it, long ago.)

Fourth, closely related, don’t allow yourself to be isolated from your host country. The CEU exists as an island in Budapest, there isn’t much of an interface with Hungarian intellectual life and, equally important, not much contact with the centre-Right.

Nor did the CEU ever seriously try to build itself a constituency in Hungarian opinion; minimally it did with the centre-Left in Budapest, but this was never sufficient. This meant that it was always possible to mobilise street demonstrations of some thousands, but these were largely confined to the capital. For most of Hungarian opinion, the question of what the CEU does for the country, the answer is a blank stare.

Fifth, another tactical misjudgment by the CEU was to assume that making a noise, getting the international media and your alumni to amplify the CEU’s case, would help. The CEU’s problem in this area is that Fidesz no longer cares much about reputational damage. The negative image is deeply entrenched in the media — the language of “democratic backsliding”, “illiberalism”, “autocracy”, “authoritarianism”, “populism”, “nativism” are widely propagated and evidence to the contrary is routinely ignored. So one more complaint, the CEU’s, is just shrugged off. The international media and the CEU don’t vote in Hungary and voters choose Fidesz.

Finally, if you find yourself in a difficult situation, stop digging. If you start raising the prospect of moving abroad, you thereby give the location state an added incentive to adopt a hardline position against you; the blackmail of “make concessions or we move” is easily called — “OK, move then, you’ve more to lose than we’ve to gain. You are not an asset, but a nuisance” or something along these lines.

And that may well be the factor that the CEU, insulated in its own institutional world as it is — and using the language of war — failed to take into consideration. Is its presence in Hungary important for the government and Hungarian opinion? Is there any added value? Increasingly, the answer is no.