An Unfounded Mandate

The Hungarian people are speaking out, but the European People’s Party remains silent

Constanze Jeitler
19 April 2017

On Palm Sunday, approximately 70,000 people gathered on the streets of Budapest to demonstrate for a “free country and free education” The Sunday protests were sparked by a piece of legislation aimed at regulating foreign universities operating in Hungary. The new law has been nicknamed “Lex CEU” because many see it as specifically targeting the Central European University (CEU), an institution accredited in both Hungary and the US and is widely considered to be one of the best universities in the region.

The new legislation, among other things, would require CEU to open a campus in the US and for there to be a bilateral agreement between Budapest and Washington. The first would have no positive effect on teaching and learning, the latter would make the university dependent on the goodwill of two governments and vulnerable to political influence.

For a long time, CEU and the values it stands for as an independent research institution have been an anathema to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his national-populist government. CEU was founded in 1991 by investor and philanthropist George Soros to promote democracy and open society in the post-socialist countries of CEE, today the small yet prestigious institution stands for everything Mr. Orbán detests: independent, international, liberal and, above all, critical.

Orbán Needs a Victory

Last October, voters were called to the ballot for a referendum about the EU refugee quota, but there was not enough turnout to make it legally binding. Then, early in 2017, a petition destroyed Mr. Orbán’s dreams of hosting the Olympics in Budapest in 2024. Nevertheless, a stricter asylum law was soon passed, and Budapest is now making a bid to host the athletics championship, making it obvious how much populists like him care about the people they claim to represent.

Now, one year before parliamentary elections, the Hungarian government is keen on marginalizing the last critical voices in Hungary, picking the seemingly easy target of CEU, which he would like to ban from his illiberal state once and for all. The recent closures of universities in Russia and Turkey did not spark much international outcry; Donald Trump, of whom Mr. Orbán is an admirer, has assumed office in the White House, and the EU is busy with Brexit and facing a sincere identity crisis.

In the past, Mr. Orbán’s illiberal derailments have been tolerated by the European heads of state and Brussels alike because Hungary has been a convenient gatekeeper against asylum seekers, and, in general, it has been an inconspicuous member of the European Council who has not blocked any resolutions. At the recent Rome Summit, Orbán signed the joint declaration, vowing to “make the European Union stronger and more resilient, through even greater unity and solidarity.”

Meanwhile in Hungary, the campaign for a “national consultation” under the motto “Let’s Stop Brussels” was launched. By using phrases such as “Brussels is attacking Hungary,” the questionnaire constructs a narrative in which Hungary is under constant threat from the outside, not only from migrants and NGOs but also the EU.

Orbán’s Fidesz is a member of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) which, for a long time, has claimed to have influence over the Hungarian government. Despite occasional slaps on the wrists from Brussels (e.g. when Mr. Orbán suggested to reinstate the death penalty in Hungary in 2014), the Prime Minister and his government have been able to build an illiberal state pretty much undisturbed by the EU, which is supposed to serve as a guardian for democracy and human rights. But now, with the national consultation, “Lex CEU” and a proposed bill that would label foreign funded NGOs as agents, the Hungarian government seems to have crossed a line in the EU, and in the EPP.

The first Conservative MEP to speak out was Othmar Karas from Austria, who said that “this is not democracy but propaganda” in regards to the most recent developments in Hungary. Frank Engel from Luxemburg was less friendly in an email to Fidesz MEPs obtained by POLITICO. He asked the Hungarians “why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? The ridiculous and stultifying ‘national consultation’ you have in the making is telling us all again that you’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

A People’s Party without the People

Hungary receives one of the highest per capita funding from the EU and on paper complies with EU law but, in reality, does not adhere to its values. Further still, the government denigrates Brussels domestically on every possible occasion, creating an image of a nation under threat.

Many observers say that the only way to put pressure on the government is to stop funding temporarily and for the EPP to suspend Fidesz from the EPP. Yet, the response from the EU remains toothless. On Tuesday, April 12th, the Commission discussed the developments in Hungary with a resolution to give the government more time for a dialogue with the EU.

Meanwhile in Hungary, a generation of young people who grew up as Europeans are becoming frustrated with the responses of the EU. They have profited immensely from Hungary ‘s ascension to the EU in 2004 and, for example, have studied abroad thanks to the Erasmus program. But now they feel that the EU and also the EPP have left them out in the rain. It is up to the Commission, the Council and last but not least the party that claims to represent “the People” to support the Hungarian people in their fight against illiberalism and for European values such as academic freedom.

Constanze Jeitler is a graduate student in Comparative History at the Central European University in Budapest. Previously, she studied at the University of Vienna and the Charles University in Prague.