Institut d'etudes Européennes
De l'Université libre de Bruxelles

Conference Academic Freedom & Democracy: Higher Education Crisis in Hungary



Academic Freedom in Hungary

The case of the Central European University

Introduction to a debate with Michael Ignatieff, Caroline Pauwels and Yvon Englert

ULB, April 24, 2017


Jean-Paul Marthoz


Good evening and welcome to this event hosted by the Institutes of European Studies of the VUB and the ULB.


I am honored to moderate this evening’s discussion on Academic Freedom and Democracy in Hungary, an event convened by two universities, which, as their name proudly attest, are committed to critical thinking and « hold freedom of thought » as their insignia.


I warmly thank their rectors, Caroline Pauwels and Yvon Englert, for their presence on this panel.


Our keynote speaker will be Michael Ignatieff, the rector of the Central European University, a Hungarian-American University, accredited in both countries, which was founded in 1991 in Budapest to support the region’s transition from communist dictatorship to democracy and has since grown into a reference of liberal thinking and a centre of academic excellence in Hungary and in the region.

I don’t really have to introduce Mr. Ignatieff. He has had a brilliant career as a writer and an academic, in particular at Harvard University where he was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and more recently the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of the Press, Politics and Public Policy. He also has been a journalist and a politician as the Leader of Canada’s currently ruling Liberal Party.

I’ll just recall that in the past 4 decades his reflections, couched in a succession of thought-provoking books, from Blood and Belonging to the WarriorsHonour, from Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry toThe Lesser Evil, from a biography of Isaiah Berlin to a political memoir Fire and Ashes, have intellectually and sometimes controversially framed the aspirations, the doubts, the tensions and the dilemmas of political liberalism, the global human rights community and journalism.


Hungary will be the focus of this evening’s discussion but the case of Hungary cannot be dissociated from the European Union. It is no coincidence that we are here hosted by the Institutes of European Studies. It cannot be isolated either from a global and increasingly connected world. We are living, to borrow from Timothy Garton Ash, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at Oxford, in a « cosmopolis », which provides today the realistic context for any discussion of free speech or academic freedom. And in this cosmopolis, as most barometers of world freedom attest, headwinds are blowing against the most fundamental values of liberty, free enquiry and openness. 


I will add that academic freedom is not a luxury nor a privilege. « It is both a proxy for democratic values and of intrinsic importance in its own right, write Anne Corbett and Claire Gordon, of the London School of Economics in an essay defending the CEU. Universities, they add, need the autonomy, the freedom and the authority to educate their students to be active members of society and to carry out cutting edge research which will enable us to find solutions to an increasingly complex set of issues. They also need protection against arbitrary interference. These are basic conditions for the effective functioning of higher education which intrinsically depends on a spirit of openness, tolerance, inquiry and respect for diversity to do its work, the very values that underpin the democratic societies in which we aspire to live ».


Hungary and Europe

Last October the Canadian newspaper of record, the Globe and Mail, suggested that Michael Ignatieff« was back safely in academia » after a period of life devoted to Canadian politics…only to quickly add:  « The new post he begins this fall as president and rector of the famed Central European University in the Hungarian capital of Budapest is about as politically charged as there is right now in the world of academia ».

The author of the Globe and Mail article was right. In early April the Hungarian Parliament adopted a new legislation on Higher Education which requires universities registered outside Hungary to have their operations approved though a “contract” between the Hungarian government and the university’s state of origin, in the case of CEU between Hungary and the relevant United States authorities. It also requires the university to establish a campus in the country in which it is registered, which in CEU’s case will mean opening a new campus in the US.

Michael Ignatieff will better explain than I may the nature and implications of the law but let me add that, even if the Hungarian government denies it, it has been widely interpreted as a direct attack against the CEU and even as a political vendetta against its founder and funder, Georges Soros, the Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist, whose liberal views, inspired by Karl Popper’s « Open Society », are radically at odds with the current Hungarian government’s ideology and agenda.


The law, dubbed the Lex CEU, has raised a storm of reactions, in Hungary first, where tens of thousands of people have demonstrated, but also internationally. The US State Department, the academic freedom network Scholars at Risk, the European University Association, the European Students Union, and others have criticized the measure. “Europe must not be silent when civil society, even academia, as now at Central European University in Budapest, is deprived of air to breathe”, said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The European Commission, which is the guardian of the EU treaties, is currently assessing their conformity with EU law. Frans Timmermans, the EC’s vice president in charge of fundamental rights, should be reporting back before the end of April.


According to its opponents, the Lex CEU is not  just an attack against one institution and one man. It is not a Trumpesque quirk, a flash in the pan, a moment of aberration. In fact, writes Lydia Gall, Human Rights Watch researcher in Budapest, « the CEU represents everything that the Hungarian government considers as a threat: critical thinking, liberal values and academic freedom ». To many observers who have been following Viktor Orban’s government since his crushing electoral victory in 2010, it is just another stage in a carefully planned political project which has led, in the words of renowned Hungarian-American journalist and author Kati Marton, to an « authoritarian descent ».


Since 2010, to the bafflement of many in Brussels and in Washington, the former anti-Soviet dissident, the former pro-Western liberal, the former student of Oxford University (by the way, thanks to a George Soros’s scholarship) has been reshaping Hungary,  transforming it into an « illiberal democracy », as Viktor Orban himself confessed.

The choice of words used to qualify the current Hungarian government remains controversial. Michael Ignatieff, for instance, refuses the often-made comparison between Mr. Orban with Mr. Putin. But a number reports from human rights organizations, press freedom groups, the European Humanist Federation and Members of the European Parliament have severely impugned a succession of measures, policies and declarations (constitutional changes, a new media law, interference in judiciary independence, restrictions on foreign funding of civil society organizations, the definition of Hungarian identity), which they consider as an assault on the EU’s most fundamental values and in particular of the European Charter of Human Rights.


The attitude of the Hungarian government in the so-called refugee crisis, its refusal to assume its share in the plan hatched by the EU to address the issue, its warning on « dominant Muslim presence in Europe », its recent law allowing for the blanket detention of asylum seekers, have crystallized these judgments. They have created a parting of waters between two radically different ideas of what Europe is and what it should stand for. Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe summarized it as « the Merkel way versus the Orban way for Europe ». « European leaders face a stark choice, she wrote last October. They can go their own way at the risk of destroying the EU, or they can pull together to restore the blocs ambition and confidence ».


The Hungarian case raises indeed crucial issues for the European Union. « Viktor Orban, Patrick Kingsley writes in The Guardian, seeks what he calls a counter-revolution in the EU -greater autonomy for nation states and less emphasis on liberal and humanitarian principles ».

To those who have raised the alarm over Hungary it test the EU’s most fundamental ethical and political principles, it challenges its capacity and its will to call upon member states to uphold those values enshrined in the EU charter of fundamental rights, it questions its ambition to really create a union where the defense of common values trumps the crude affirmation of national sovereignty and identity.


Let me quote Dutch policial scientist Cas Mudde and a former CEU professor: « It should be clear by now that Orbáns actions are not merely a domestic affair. First of all, Hungary is a member of the EU and should respect its laws, he wrote recently in The Guardian. Second, Hungary has become a bellwether for illiberal democracy in Europe and an inspiration for illiberal democrats throughout the region. Hence, the struggle over CEU is not just about that unique university, it is about all universities, and it is about liberal democracy. If we dont take a stand now, we will be fighting similar measures in Poland and other countries soon. The EU has tolerated Viktor Orban for too long. It has to take a stand ».


The judgment is « sans appel », but drawing their own conclusions from Viktor Orban’s constant and unruffled challenges to the EU, many consider that the EU has not been up to the challenge. That it has shown a lack of courage and political will, that it has caved in, limiting itself to legalistic infringement proceedings instead of triggering the rule of law mechanism, an instrument which is supposed to ensure that member states respect the democratic criteria that they promised to uphold when they joined the EU. The new Higher Education law will again trigger discussions on the EU’s prerogatives, torn between Article 2 of the Treaties which extolls democratic values and article 165 which limits the role that the EU can play in education.

True, there has been at times a serious discussion of the Hungarian case. Lines  in the sand have been drawn in the European Parliament with the Liberals, the Greens, the Left, trying to kick the EU into action and, on the other side, center-right and right wing parties opting for a soft line or even an endorsement of Viktor Orban’s policies. Fidezs, the Hungarian ruling party, belongs to the European People’s Party, the largest group in the hemicycle and although there have been signs of impatience and irritation in its ranks, especially when Viktor Orban dared to slam Angela Merkel’s migration policies, the EPP has not, not yet, withdrawn its imprimatur.



Academic freedom as the canary in the mine

The attack on the CEU, as I mentioned earlier, cannot be seen exclusively in the Hungarian context. We are in a Cosmopolis and the remarks which Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, made a couple of years ago on press freedom can be applied to academic freedom: « When the rights of foreign media are curtailed, OUR rights are threatened, he famously said. That’s what globalization means. In an increasingly interconnected, global society, censorship anywhere can become censorship everywhere ».

Now, academic freedom is under pressure in many countries, in authoritarian states of course which see such freedom as antithetical to their arbitrariness and their bigotry. It is also targeted by so-called non-state actors, religious fundamentalists in particular, who often benefit from official or societal complacency and prosper on judicial impunity. « Attacks on higher education communities are occurring at an alarming rate around the world, threatening the safety and well-being of scholars, students, and staff, writes the Scholars at Risk network in its 2016 Free To Think report, which mentions in particular, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Syria, Egypt,Turkey, South Africa and Venezuela. « These attacks shrink the space in which everyone is free to think, question, and share ideas », adds Scholars at Risk.

But our old democracies are not safe havens either. In the current age of populism, marked by « the narcissism of minor differences », as Michael Ignatieff characterized it, by anti- intellectualism, by the rejection of expertise, the distrust of facts and the derision of reason, in a world flooded by intemperate and knee-jerk social media, in societies where free speech is threatened by terrorist thugs, the heckler’s veto or even the good intentioned defenders of peaceful coexistence and inter-cultural dialogue, academics and academic freedom -the defense of uninhibited, robust and wide-open thinking, enquiry and speech - are more needed and more relevant than ever. These are challenges that we cannot afford to lose.


This evening on the ULB campus is act of solidarity with the CEU but also with all those academics, everywhere, in Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Venezuela, Bangladesh, etc. etc.  who are victims of censorship, intimidation, expulsion and sometimes death.


Defending academic freedom and in the most extreme cases saving scholars at risk belongs to the grandest traditions of international solidarity. Let us remember Albert Einstein who mobilized the academic community in the 1930s to protect and save scholars threatened by totalitarian states. Let us also remember US journalist Varian Fry, the first American to be honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous among the Nations, who landed in Marseilles in June 1940 on behalf of the US Emergency Rescue Committee and succeeded in helping over 2,000 people, among them leading academic voices, escape the trap of Vichy France.


Hungary is not Vichy France, but telescoping two different moments in history allows us to re-affirm a fundamental principle.

« Liberal principles are of little meaning unless one is prepared to risk ones survival in their defense », Michael Ignatieff wrote in his biography of Isaiah Berlin, one of the greatest 20th’s century philosophers. And in this erudite and graceful book published in 1998 he quotes a Isaiah Berlin’s sentence which has a special resonance in today’s troubled times. « Unless there is some point at which you are prepared to fight against whatever odds, Berlin said, and whatever the threat may be, not merely to yourself, but to anybody, all principles become flexible, all codes melt, and all ends in themselves for which we live disappear ».

In short the ivory tower is no place to be to defend academic freedom.


Now without further ado I give the floor to Michael Ignatieff, who, someone suggested last year, was « safely back in academia »…