The Author

Zeynep Mentesoglu

Zeynep Mentesoglu holds a Bachelor Degree in International Relations at Middle East Technical University, Ankara. She is currently running a double-master programme at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) in Barcelona. Her main focus is on integration of immigrants, territorial management strategies and regional integration policies of European Union with a particular focus on South Mediterranean including Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey.


“This is unprecedented. A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU”

stated the CEU president Michael Ignatieff referring to the end of his university’s more than 25 years of operation in Budapest, Hungary.

This is the very first time a reputable university has been forced out of an EU member state. However, CEU’s leaving Hungary is not an arbitrary eviction; rather a symptom of the increasing power of radical right politics and of illiberal democracy today.

Before moving into the ‘fight’ authoritarian governments take on ‘blacklisted’ universities that hurt academic freedom to a greatest extent, one should go behind the story itself.

CEU was founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, whom first Orbán government targeted since its first rule in 1998-2002. A very founding purpose of CEU on the heels of fall of communism across Central and Eastern Europe was to train the liberal democratic transition elite of the region and thus foster the liberal democratic transition.

CEU has established itself as a top-class international university “with approximately 1,400 students from more than 130 countries, CEU is one of the most densely international universities in the world.” Indeed, on October 25, 2018, it is considered the best English language university in Budapest. Rather than merely being an institution for learning, CEU’s involvement in the design of Hungarian democracy put it in odds with Orbán’s ideological project. Orbán’s dislike of Soros has been accompanied by authoritarian surveillance both in individual and institutional level.

*“Stop Soros” law has passed making distribution of information about the asylum process and giving migrants financial help a new crime.

*Soros’s Open Society Foundation had to shut down its operations in Hungary.

Yet Orban’s anti-Soros triumph is completed by the eventual crackdown of CEU itself which will move most of its operations to Vienna beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.

It would be mistaken to underestimate Orbán’s strategies in the CEU fight. Avoiding from overt repression – including the arrest of academicians, activists and/or the violent repression of protest– Orbán applied more subtle means of control. This enabled numerous room of maneuver for Orbán in the eyes of EU or US. More frequently, assaults on civil liberties in Hungry has taken more subtle forms, including “legal repression” or the discretionary use of legal instruments–such as tax, libel, or defamation laws–to punish opponents – Soros himself and CEU in this case.

Trustees of CEU stated CEU is moving because of the Hungarian “government’s crackdown on academic freedom including a government ban on gender studies programs, the forced suspension of research related to migration, and punitive tax measures.”

Most importantly, so-called, Lex CEU was designed in such a way posing an almost impossible condition to be fulfilled by Soros’s CEU considering the time limitations, where time is on the side of the government.In the worlds of the chair (director) of the Comparative Constitutional Law program in CEU, the rule of law has been replaced by rule by law in Orbán’s Hungary. Professor Uitz states that “rules single out particular legal entities chosen on the basis of political (in)convenience and subject these target organizations to special treatment serving arbitrary political aims”.

The Central European University is not the only victim

Hungry is not the only country choosing ‘rule by law’ as a subtle means of surveillance and repression for their take on universities. Orbán and his ideological allies rule by using democratic institutions while cherishing the concept of democracy in many other countries.

What we face is a certain kind of pact with authoritarian governments and certain universities. This pact reveals itself providing financial and infrastructural opportunities for the majority of the universities. However, at the same time, it declares a black ship that the authoritarian government explicitly or implicitly targets.

Despite it is the first time a European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU, similar scenarios took place before- if not worse.

Belarus’s autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko shut down the country’s European Humanities University, a Belarussian liberal arts school. The University since then has been operating across the border in Lithuania as a Belarussian university.

In Russia, the story of the European University at St Petersburg somehow retraces the of CEU. The university received generous funding from Western donors such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Ford and MacArthur Foundations. These funders have later been replaced with wealthy Russian industrialists. Following the years after Mr. Putin’s rise to the presidency in 2000, the European University has been targeted as the black sheep by Russia’s nationalists. Very similar to Orbán’s tactics, they do not actually close the university. Repression came in subtle terms:

*The teaching licenses had been revocated precluding the university’s operation.

*Fire inspectors banned lectures in 2008 following the universities accepted a grant from the European Commission.

“I am sure the reason we cannot study has nothing to do with fire safety regulations…It might be political, or perhaps someone just wanted to have our building”

said Roman V. Popov, a former student of economics, who had to leave for another university in St. Petersburg in order to obtain his degree.

Just like the Central European University of Hungary, the European University at St. Petersburg found itself in a death spiral because of the pressure coming from some Russian officials.

Similarly, fifteen Turkish universities ‘shut down’ after the failed coup. Following dismissals and prosecutions had created a campus climate of fear where independent academic work is almost an impossible goal.

 International reaction under a cloud

Closing a university should be rarely if not ever something to be glad about. Nevertheless, the case of Hungary has a special seriousness as for the first time a university has been forced out of an EU member state. However, despite the gravity of what occurred, reactions have been less widespread than expected by many. On the European stage, in particular, reactions were varied.

On one side, in September, the European Parliament voted to launch punitive action against Hungary for breaching the EU founding principles. Such vote will trigger for the first time ever Article 7 procedure against an EU member state.

The Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union seeks to protect the EU values as “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.

Despite it has been the first time for the European Parliament to initiate the Article 7 procedure, it should not shock since the European Commission started the same process against Poland, closely allied to Hungary together with Czech Republic and Slovakia in the so-called Visegrad Group, in December 2017 following concerns over rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

However, despite what can be described as an unprecedented political sanction against Budapest government, the EPP, the main group within the European Parliament and house of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in the EU, did not solve the internal question regarding Orbán’s position and influence.

It appears that Merkel’s warning to Orban’s government back in April 2017, shortly after the Hungarian government announced a new law regulating the operation of universities did not help shifting the EPP position on the situation. In fact, so far, the European People’s Party has no plans to expel Fidesz party and apparently the group prefers to keep Orbán’s in its ranks rather than pushing him into a Eurosceptic political family.

Apart from the procedure for Article 7, the silence around what happened is almost deafening.

The situation is not better from the other side of the Atlantic: what would have been completely unthinkable until two years ago, that the US would accept the closure of a US institution by another government, happened not in Russia, not in China but in Europe, one of Washington’s more valuable allies. The silence from the White House on the topic not only showed that the current US President is everything but shy on damaging personal opponents through the office he holds, but also that the times in which the US were used to criticize far-right leader’s authoritarian policies are over.

What are universities for?

Both in the heart of Europe and neighbouring countries, the democratic backsliding over the issue of academic freedom is obvious. Authoritarian rules do not hesitate to control over and even shut down top-rank universities if they are “blacklisted” as a regime threat. Bearing in mind academic freedom as a core European value, increasing control of over them seems to be a new tactic becoming more and more popular which is increasing the cost of any kind of opposition-e.g. undesired academic work- and creating a government-supported national elite.

Finally, if the authoritarian rules blow hot and cold, they would opt for lower quality universities which they can control every time over the good ones. It is in vital importance to face the fact that academic freedom is alarming within the EU. Indeed, unlike the authoritarian hand over the academia are not dismissed, the spill over effect is inevitable and the fate of the CEU will be shared in many other countries identifying themselves as democracies.

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