05 Oct 2017   |   News

Central European University says agreement it can stay open is near

The stand-off is over, but with prime minister Viktor Orbán’s campaign against CEU founder George Soros heating up and the Commission pursuing its legal case against Hungary’s law on foreign NGOs, a deal may still be in doubt

Photo: Daniel Vegel, CEU

An agreement that would allow the Central European University to keep operating in its home in Budapest could be in the offing, with university officials saying they have found a way to comply with a new law that is widely seen as a ploy by prime minister Viktor Orbán to shut the university down.

The row erupted suddenly in March when the 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.

Now, the university has signed a memorandum of understanding with Bard College to provide courses in New York, which would seem to satisfy the requirements of the government’s regulation.

New York State and the Hungarian government have been in negotiations regarding CEU’s future in Budapest for several months. The university was not invited to the negotiating table, but this week said there had been a breakthrough in the stand-off.

“We have been informed that negotiations have created the basis for an agreement,” a CEU representative said on Tuesday. “We hope that this MOU, which does not preclude future agreements with other New York-based institutions, helps to provide the basis for a speedy conclusion to this affair.”

The university must now wait for the government’s approval of the agreement and the Hungarian parliament’s ratification in order for it to stay in Budapest.

Hungary ‘examining’ the deal

A statement from the Hungarian government said, “The Ministry of Human Capacities and the Ministry of Justice are currently examining the submitted documents as to whether the operation of CEU is in line with Hungarian regulations.”

The Hungarian Act on Higher Education does not impose unattainable requirements on either Hungarian or on the other 22 foreign universities, the statement said. “However, the conditions laid down by law must fully be complied with. This provision of the law also applies to the CEU established by American speculator György Soros; there are no separate bargains.”

Anti-Soros campaign heats up

There is some doubt in Hungary as to whether the government will accept the agreement. This week, there was a step-up in attacks on CEU founder Soros.

Soros, a major funder of programmes that aim to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is frequently characterised by Orbán as puppet master in a plot to install pro-western governments in the Balkans and Central Europe.

“We have always been advocates of straight talk, we have never denied that we are in a big disagreement with George Soros, the world’s most influential billionaire,” reads a government leaflet recently posted to eight million citizens.

The purpose of the leaflet, which included a questionnaire, was to elicit feedback from Hungarians on an EU refugee relocation programme Orbán says is orchestrated by Soros.

In the document, the government portrays a 2015 decision by more than 20 EU governments to create the programme as “dangerous” and a key element of a supposed “Soros plan”.

“I'd like to believe that the leader politicians want to make arrangement with CEU, but I'm not absolutely sure they will do it or not,” said Tibor Valuch, a social historian at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Valuch believes the fresh campaign against Soros “decreases the chance of agreement”.

Such concerns will be amplified by the European Commission taking the next step in its legal action against Hungary for what the Commission sees as a discriminatory law on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

On Wednesday, the Commission issued a reasoned opinion, the second step in the EU’s infringement procedure, to Hungary for its law on foreign-funded NGOs. This follows a letter of formal notice sent by the Commission on 14 July, which started the legal proceeding against Hungary for failing to fulfil its obligations under EU treaty provisions on the free movement of capital.

The Hungarian law on foreign-funded NGOs, adopted on 13 June, introduced new obligations for NGOs receiving annual foreign funding above €24,000 to register and label themselves in all their publications, websites and press material, as organisations supported from abroad.

The Commission claims provisions in the NGO Law indirectly discriminate and disproportionately restrict donations from abroad to civil society organisations.

 Hungary’s reply on 14 August did address these “serious concerns” the Commission says.

Following the issuing of the reasoned opinion, Hungary now has one month to take the necessary measures to comply. If the reply is not satisfactory, the Commission can refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.

We are moving forward

The wider political context may put the proposed agreement in doubt, but in an upbeat email to staff and students this week, CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said, “We remain confident that this matter will be resolved successfully and that CEU will remain in Budapest, our home for the past 26 years. We are moving forward with our strategic planning process.”

Ignatieff, who has led a spirited fight against the new law, has warned it would be the first time since 1945 that a European state had forced a university to close.

The university dispute has embroiled European leaders, the European Commission and European Parliament, international university heads and the US government.

As many as 90,000 academics and private citizens, including 20 Nobel laureates, came out in support of CEU, signing more than 1,000 letters to the government asking for withdrawal of the proposed amendments. There were mass street protests during the spring, and an online petition gathered more than 35,000 signatures.

The US government has backed CEU, accusing Hungary's government of imposing "discriminatory, onerous requirements on US-accredited institutions in Hungary.”

In his email, Ignatieff commended all the support, saying, “Everyone in the community has shown patience, good humour and resolve and we want to thank everyone for doing their jobs so well during this period.”

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