The arbitrary ouster of Central European University from Hungary highlights two realities about the European Union. First, the EU has relatively little power to protect the non-economic rights of the bloc’s citizens, and, second, leading European politicians lack the will to stop autocrats like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
On November 15, Central European University (CEU) officially inaugurated its new campus in Vienna, Austria, having been arbitrarily ousted from Hungary. On the same day, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government opened another large sports stadium in Budapest.
Predictably, the government-controlled Hungarian media focused on the latter event and ignored the departure of CEU, the country’s leading university in European and global rankings. But European Union leaders also were largely silent — deafeningly and dishearteningly so — on the day that the EU’s first “university in exile” opened in the capital of a neighboring member state.
By contrast, the mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig, emphasized the importance of the occasion. “Two years ago, we all witnessed something that I believed to be unthinkable, and should, in fact, have no place in a united Europe,” he said. “An academic institution was told that it was no longer welcome in a nation’s capital city.” Ludwig’s sentiments, however, found few echoes elsewhere in the EU.
To be sure, nearly all of the EU’s key political actors have expressed their solidarity with CEU at one point or another. Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels in April 2017, CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff could say, “I have support in Washington. I have support in Berlin, I have support in Budapest, […] I have got support in Munich. It is now time to get some support in Brussels.”
And Ignatieff did get some backing, at least initially. In December 2017, the European Commission took Hungary to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the government’s so-called “CEU law,” which the university said was intended to force it out of the country. As The Guardian reported at the time, “Brussels steps up its fight to protect democratic values in central Europe.”
Then, in March 2019, the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, suspended Orbán’s Fidesz party. True, the decision was prompted primarily by Fidesz’s fake news campaign against Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, rather than by its attacks on academic freedom. But the EPP also demanded that Orbán’s government clarify “the pending legal issues regarding the Central European University.”
In the end, however, the Hungarian government did not “clarify” the position of CEU in the country’s legal system. Worse, by pushing the university out, Orbán has established a precedent for other like-minded EU leaders to follow. It is telling that, five days after CEU inaugurated its new Vienna campus, Hungary and Poland vetoed an EU resolution proposing that the Commission produce an annual report on the state of the rule of law in each EU country.
The ouster of CEU from Hungary highlights two realities about the EU. First, despite the British Conservative Party’s catastrophic attempt to reclaim “sovereignty” from the EU through Brexit, and the defeat of softer “sovereigntist” parties in the European Parliament election in May, the governments in Poland and Hungary are still flying the populist-sovereigntist flag. What matters for them are not the economic freedoms anxiously defended by the Commission and the ECJ, but rather the freedom of EU member-state governments to violate the bloc’s rules at will.
In fact, the Orbán government’s harassment of CEU is just one of its many attacks on Hungarian citizens’ political rights and freedoms. The inability of EU institutions to stop Orbán’s assault on judicial independence, as well as on academic and media freedom, thus reveals a fundamental institutional imbalance within the bloc.
The EU can sanction member states for curtailing economic liberties, and also has greater powers to impose financial and economic policies on national governments than the United States federal government does vis-à-vis the 50 states. For example, the EU can limit member states’ scope to make democratic decisions on national budgetary matters, and can restrict the right to strike.
But the EU has far less power to defend the non-economic rights of the bloc’s citizens. The legal scholar Dimitry Kochenov argues that the EU’s “democracy,” although praised in legal texts, “emerges as a rather flimsy façade for something else, protecting the market from the citizens, rather than the other way round.”
Second, the fate of CEU, together with the Hungarian government’s other violations of citizens’ rights, underlines the lack of will among leading European politicians to stop Orbán-type autocrats. The EPP’s members may despise Orbán and his revitalization of the Soviet-era understanding of sovereignty. But as R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers has argued, their gains from the votes that Orbán delivers to their coalition far exceed the reputational costs they may incur by supporting him.
Moreover, Orbán’s staunch defense of backroom bargaining among national governments as the dominant mode of EU decision-making serves the interests of the bloc’s more conservative forces. Orbán fears that moving toward a federal European polity, including by strengthening the legitimacy and powers of the European Parliament, could prompt calls for the bloc to protect a broader range of EU citizens’ rights, thereby depriving his regime of its EU-level defenses.
For European conservatives, most of whom are clustered within the EPP, any move toward political federalism represents a slippery slope to a “transfer union.” They fear that EU member states, which already share sovereignty in economic matters, may also be asked to share the risks of maintaining a European market of 500 million people. Orbán’s attacks on “Brussels” might be a nuisance, but his hostility to a “United States of Europe” helps to revitalize the sovereigntist cause and fortify European conservatives’ dominant position.
The forced departure of CEU from Hungary is a sad and dangerous episode. Unless the EU starts standing up to autocrats like Orbán and protecting citizens’ rights better, it won’t be the last.
László Bruszt, Professor of Political Science at Central European University, served as Acting Rector and President of CEU in 1996-1997. This article was originally published by Project Syndicate.