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The debate over CEU rolls on

April 10th, 2017

As a new wave of actors in the EU and the US join the dispute over CEU’s future, commentators along the political spectrum ponder the motivations of the parties involved and opinions diverge on whether the university will close down.

In an unprecedented statement on Thursday, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticised the amendments to the Hungarian higher education act (see BudaPost from March 30 through April 3) and announced that the Commission will discuss ‘lex CEU’ next week. In a letter to the European People’s Party, PM Orbán dismissed the accusations that the Hungarian government wants to ban universities and accused the ‘Soros network’ of spreading falsehoods about the amendments to the higher education act. The European Parliament will debate the ‘situation in Hungary’ in late April. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, CEU Rector and President Michael Ignatieff said that the US State Department would send people to Budapest to discuss the matter.

Magyar Nemzet’s Csaba Lukács calls the new law an ‘ideologically motivated attack’ and picks up the argument (See BudaPost, April 3) that it harms not only Hungarian academia but also the interests of trans-border Hungarians. The conservative columnist recalls that former Romanian PM Victor Ponta has announced plans to emulate the Hungarian law. Lukács fears that Romania could easily target the two Hungarian-funded private universities in Transylvania. He adds that CEU has educated hundreds of Romanians. In their case, the multicultural and anti-nationalist education they received at CEU could also strengthen the tolerance of Romanians toward the Hungarian minority, Lukács contends.

In Heti Válasz, András Zsuppán suspects that Fidesz passed ‘Lex CEU’  in order to mobilize its own base and at the same time, woo Jobbik supporters who are dissatisfied with the far-right party’s centrist turn. The conservative analyst believes that the US will try to save CEU, as dozens of similar institutions exist around the world. These institutions are intended to spread US values and promote Washington’s geopolitical interest, Zsuppán speculates. The closure of CEU could possibly inspire other countries to follow suit and shut pro-US institutions, he concludes.

In an angry editorial, left-liberal Magyar Narancs goes so far as to accuse PM Orbán of ‘trying to eliminate and erase’ those who do not share his political vision and values. The weekly, however, thinks that neither the US, nor the EU can stop PM Orbán from shutting down CEU.

In Heti Világgazdaság, László Seres accuses the government of promulgating Lex-CEU as an expression of its pro-Russian sympathies. The libertarian pundit believes that the Orbán government has copied the Russian and Israeli legislation targeting NGOs funded from abroad. Seres even speculates that the case of CEU is part of the Orbán government’s scheme to ‘integrate Hungary in the Russian sphere of interest’.

In Élet és Irodalom, István Kenesei believes PM Orbán is motivated in his move to strengthen his pro-sovereignty image. The liberal journalist considers it a significant development that most of Hungarian academia stand behind CEU, but he fears that this will not suffice to change the government’s mind, as its main aim is to mobilize anti-elite voters.

Magyar Hírlap’s Mariann Őry thinks that the defenders of CEU are ideologically motivated. The pro-government columnist finds the allegations that the government singled out CEU in order to close it hysterical and absurd. These allegations and the lobbying by the university are intended to pressurise the government into withdrawing the regulations that would ban CEU from issuing two parallel degrees, a US and a Hungarian degree to its students, Őry ruminates.

In Magyar Idők, János Csontos also thinks that the revision of the higher education act is intended to level the playing field for all universities. The pro-government pundit contends that CEU is part of the network of NGOs that ‘declared war on Hungary in the name of Europe and actively support criminal migrants’. Csontos thinks that the dispute over CEU helps to better identify where Hungarian political actors really stand in these debates.

Mandiner’s Zsolt Jeszenszky labels CEU an ‘elitist ghetto’ serving the interests and ideology of cosmopolitan neoliberal elites that want to entrench inequality. Nonetheless, Jeszenky believes that CEU should be defended, as the freedom of education and opinion deserve protection under any circumstances.

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