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CEU rector makes raw appeal for EU support in fight against threatened closure

“Viktor Orbán has a gun to our heads,” Michael Ignatieff tells MEPs as he continues the fight against a law which threatens to shut the Central European University

CEU President Michael Ignatieff
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Central European University (CEU) rector Michael Ignatieff made a raw appeal for EU help this week, as he fights a law which he believes has been designed by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán to shut the university down.

“The attack we face is on a free institution,” Ignatieff told a crowded European Parliament chamber. “My keen desire is to not be here, in this room, defending my university. But I need you.”

Ignatieff’s appeal met with plenty of sympathy in Brussels, where there is growing will to confront Orbán’s right-wing government, viewed as tightening its grip on Hungary.

On Wednesday, the European Commission confirmed it was bringing a case against the Hungarian government for breach of EU law, a process which could result in a fine.   

But what remains highly uncertain is whether Orbán will withdraw the university law, due to come into effect on October 11.

Ignatieff says he is in a race against the clock. “My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.”

“We’ve been presented with impossible demands. I have a gun to my head and we need to say that it is impermissible to take a university hostage like this,” he said. CEU, registered in New York and Budapest, is being asked to “choose between passports.”

“The passing strangeness of this idea – here’s a nationalist government asking me to educate students in New York when I want to educate them in Hungary.”

The row over CEU erupted suddenly last month when a highly-controversial law was tabled requiring the university, which was founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to open a campus in the US and to stop teaching US-accredited courses.

In order to comply, there would have to be a new international treaty between the US and the Hungarian government, even though the US federal government has no jurisdiction over higher education. Staff working at the CEU will in future require work permits.

As Ignatieff, a former leader of the Liberal party in Canada, noted, this is the first time since 1945 that a European country has moved to shut down a university. Not only that, but the new law was made without any consultation, warning or discussion, before being fast-tracked through the Hungarian parliament last month.

“The discourse in Hungary is that we are irregular and we play it fast and loose with rules. It’s defamatory, to be blunt, on an institution that has always been scrupulous,” Ignatieff told MEPs. “We’re a university, not an NGO. I don’t teach liberalism. I teach knowledge, science, mathematics, medieval history.”

The rector’s speech tapped into MEPs’ emotions, with Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Parliament’s liberal grouping, saying CEU’s battle is, “a struggle for free thinking in the EU”, while for MEP Philippe Lamberts, leader of the greens, Orbán is, “sourcing inspiration from Moscow.”

Gianni Pittella, leader of the socialists and democrats group said, “Abolishing a university means getting rid of democracy, it’s alarming.” His country Italy is this week commemorating its liberation from Nazi occupation, Pittella noted, adding “If we allow democratic values to die, we’ll share the blame for their death.”

CEU was established in Budapest 25 years ago. “We’re immensely proud to have graduated close to 15,000 people in this time,” said Ignatieff. “We train honest people who care about democratic values and we’re proud of the quiet contribution they have made.”

The new law has seen 70,000 protesters take to the streets of Budapest.

Every five minutes Ignatieff’s phone is buzzing with a message of support. “The core of our appeal is to leave us the hell alone, let us do what universities do,” he said.

More on this topic

> MEPs round on Viktor Orbán in the parliament

> EU launches probe into Hungary’s controversial education bill

> EU must not tolerate the threat to academic freedom in Hungary

> Global pushback against Orban’s university bill is rebuffed

> Hungary’s new education law targets US-backed Central European University

> A brief history of CEU

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Related subjects: Hungary, Central European University