FOLLOWING AN 18-month legal war of attrition between the Central European University (CEU), founded by the philanthropist George Soros, and his arch-enemy, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, CEU has thrown in the towel. On December 3rd the university said it will relocate its American-accredited programmes, the bulk of its operation, from Budapest to Vienna from September 2019.
“CEU has been forced out,” said its president, Michael Ignatieff. “This is unprecedented. A US 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.”
Under legislation passed by the Hungarian government in 2017, all foreign educational institutions accredited in Hungary are required to prove that they have a bona fide presence in their home country, and must then sign an inter-governmental agreement between the home country’s government and Hungary. CEU runs educational programmes in the state of New York that are duly certified by the American authorities, and Mr Orban’s government has negotiated with the state of New York. But Hungary has repeatedly refused to sign the agreement that would allow CEU to accept new students. CEU’s smaller Hungarian unit will remain in operation; the rest will leave.
Expressions of support from Washington and European capitals have all proved worthless. Mr Orban has defied sustained international pressure to find a modus operandi with CEU, calculating, doubtless correctly, that despite the howls of protest there would be no meaningful diplomatic consequences if CEU leaves. “No leverage has been exerted on the government of Hungary from outside,” said Mr Ignatieff.
It is a striking victory for Mr Orban, who has cast the struggle against the university as part of a broader war against foreign interference. “Orban’s message to the world is that his government does not care about pressure from the EU, the European Commission, Germany or even from the United States,” says Peter Kreko of Political Capital, a think-tank.
The war with CEU, like the recent offer of asylum to Nikola Gruevski, a former Macedonian prime minister wanted for alleged corruption, is intended to show that Hungary is an independent political actor. “If you want something from Hungary, you need to sit down with Viktor Orban,” says Mr Kreko.
CEU is highly ranked internationally and has 1,300 graduate and masters students. But its liberal social agenda, its continued funding from Mr Soros, its programmes for refugees and its department of gender studies—a particular bugbear for the socially conservative ruling Fidesz party—have made it a battleground. Mr Orban’s victory will further cement his position as the effective leader of a central European region that is increasingly rejecting the Western liberal consensus.