Orban’s closure of CEU taps into memories of Europe’s darkest past

EPA/ZOLTAN BALOGH

Participants light their mobiles during a protest against the closure of Central European University in central Budapest.

Orban’s closure of CEU taps into memories of Europe’s darkest past


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The European project is failing. And with it, the dreams of a stable, peaceful, and united Europe. The latest blow against the concept of European unity has come not from the pro-Brexit hardliners in London, but from Hungary, a country deep within the heart of Europe, itself, and one of the leaders a generation ago in Eastern Europe’s drive to rid itself from Soviet-style Communist rule.

After a two-year battle with the authoritarian tendencies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Central European University in Budapest will be shuttering its doors. The university, which was founded by Jewish Hungarian billionaire George Soros, was meant to be a beacon of pro-democratic, pan-European liberal values and research that were to help strengthen the Continent’s institutions in the difficult years of transition and reunification of Germany following the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain.

Central European University served that role with distinction for twenty-seven years, attracting Europe’s best and brightest and infusing them with the ideals of democracy, civil and human rights, and the rule of law. But now, it has unfortunately fallen victim to the nationalist plague that has been sweeping Europe since the start of the 2015 Migrant Crisis.

Orban, once a leader of Hungary’s anti-Communist student movement in the 1980s, has transformed into a rabid authoritarian Eurosceptic, with a thinly veiled anti-Semitic veneer. He has long butted heads with Soros, a man who experienced the horrors of Nazi Germany’s World War II occupation of Europe firsthand.

The authoritarian values promoted by Orban and his fellow strongmen – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko – are utterly opposed to the open and democratic principles espoused by both the EU and Central European University. Orban’s rhetoric, and near obsession, with Soros often paints him as the father of chaos and instability in Europe – a trait shared by many in the white nationalist and right-wing conspiracy extremists in the United States, where Soros’ name is uttered in the same tones as the Rothschilds and treated as having the same influence as the Illuminati, an entirely fictitious organisation alleged by conspiracy theorists and individuals like Putin and Orban to be conspiring to control world affairs through the global financial system.

Soros’ outspoken support for human rights and democratic norms, as well as his support for migrants has deeply angered Orban to the extent that the Hungarian prime minister passed an entirely new set of laws known as the ‘Stop SOROS’ bills this past June, a move that has drawn the ire of the European Commission, who filed a notice with the European Court of Justice for its blatantly anti-democratic character.

The ‘Stop SOROS’ laws allow for Orban’s security services to jail, for up to a year, anyone who engages in activities where they assist refugees with asylum claims. The legislation also includes even more restrictive asylum rules and other restrictions on the functioning of human rights groups and NGOs operating Hungary.

During Orban’s time in office, Hungary has passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting “alien populations” from entry into the country. The term originates from anti-Semitic Hungarian theologian Ottokar Prohaszka, who is most famous for stating that ‘There are no Hungarian Jews, only Jews who speak Hungarian.’ Prohaszka, whose writings were widely disseminated under Hungary’s Hitler-allied wartime leader Miklos Horthy, is coincidentally a personal hero of Orban’s. HE has renamed streets and erected statues to Prohaszka.

Viewed in this vein, the closure of Central European University is not only a blow against academic freedom but is the biggest example of institutionalised anti-Semitism that is sadly becoming par for the course for Orban and his Fidesz party. CEU being forced out of an EU member state should be a scandal that triggers the highest condemnation across Europe, and immediate action, not only by the European Commission, but by each and every EU member state that still values openness, unity, and democracy.

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