As the EU mulls how to deal with Hungary’s crackdown on the George Soros-funded Central European University, the university’s boss has a clear message for his critics: “I just want to be left the hell alone.”
On Wednesday, the European Commission will debate whether to take legal action against Hungary for alleged repeated violations of EU law. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is expected to address the European Parliament plenary session in Brussels.
A day later, Soros will be in Brussels for what his team describe as long-standing meetings on Roma inclusion, refugee protection, and attacks on freedoms of speech and the establishment.
Another key player in the row was in Brussels this week. The university’s president, Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and a predecessor of Justin Trudeau as leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, insists he doesn’t want a fight with Orban. “I just want to be left the hell alone” he told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook.
The problem for Ignatieff is that the fight’s already started.
The Commission is likely to take meaningful action only if the CEU’s concerns are bundled together with other fears about the rule of law in Hungary. They include a new law that limits the ability of NGOs to operate in Hungary, refugee and asylum policy moves that contravene EU agreements, and long-standing concerns about media law and court appointments.
The difficulty the EU faces is that any legal action it takes may take years to finish — and that’s too late for the CEU.
The university, established in the United States but run from a campus in Budapest, faces closure in 2018 if Orbán’s government implements a law agreed in early April governing universities in Hungary. The law was presented and agreed without public consultation.
Six hundred jobs and a lot of reputations are on the line. Students and staff from over 100 countries face the prospect of relocation or returning home.
Ignatieff said the prime minister’s office is engaged in “institutional hostage-taking.”
He said the Hungarian government refuses to talk to him and his team about possible solutions and will only talk to the U.S. government.
The U.S. State Department has made clear that it has no jurisdiction over universities and doesn’t support Hungary’s university law.
To make the situation more complicated, the Hungarian government recalled Réka Szemerkényi, its ambassador to the United States, just days after the State Department began sending chilly messages to Hungary.
Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács did not reply to POLITICO’s requests for comment.
The Hungarian government has sent mixed messages about its new law. At times the government has denied that Central European University is a target, but the minister responsible for the bill, Zoltán Balog, regularly rails against Soros and has said the law is needed to ensure universities in Hungary meet “foreign policy priorities.”
Ignatieff insists that he’d rather the CEU stay in Hungary than move to Vienna or any of the seven locations that have offered to host it. “It’s our home. I feel strongly about it,” he said.
A demonstration is planned in Budapest for May 1, the latest in a series of grassroots protests in support of the university.