BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The head of the Central European University promised on Tuesday to keep operating in Budapest as best it can, despite problems posed by a new law and an old dispute between its founder U.S. financier George Soros and Hungary’s right-wing leader.
Rector Michael Ignatieff ruled out any exodus of students from the Hungarian capital and said the university would even expand there if it reaches an agreement with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an open enemy of Soros and the liberal values that the billionaire is trying to promote.
However, Ignatieff told Reuters that the class of 2019 would have to enroll over the Austrian border in Vienna if the Central European University (CEU) fails to strike the deal under a Hungarian law that provoked street protests last year and has drawn a legal challenge by the European Commission.
“There will be no big exodus, no line of CEU students and faculty and staff marching on the highway to Vienna. We will make our voices heard in that worst case scenario,” Ignatieff, a former politician in his native Canada, said in an interview. “We will still have our research labs, our archives, a great library and those things that we will maintain here.”
Orban, a nationalist who won a third successive landslide victory in elections last month, has drawn accusations from critics at home and abroad of taking Hungary on an authoritarian path. This includes increasing control of the media and putting allies in charge of once independent institutions.
His refusal to accept migrants into Hungary has proved popular with voters but brought him into conflict with the European Commission. Brussels has taken action against Budapest at the European Court of Justice including on a law passed last year on foreign universities.
This has been nicknamed “Lex CEU” (CEU Law) as it would mainly affect CEU, founded by Budapest-born Soros whom Orban has accused of trying to undermine Europe’s cultural identity.
After the street protests and an international outcry, CEU won an extension to the deadline for securing its status long term, but the government’s final signature is still pending.
Lex CEU stipulates that foreign-funded universities maintain a campus in their home countries. As a result CEU, a graduate-only school, has set up a base at Bard College in New York State and has plans for a third campus in Vienna.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Ignatieff said. “Without Lex CEU, there would be no plans for Bard (or) for Vienna,” said Ignatieff who led the Liberal Party of the current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when it was in opposition. “We have grown as a result of what we have been through in Budapest.”
Ignatieff, who has been CEU rector since 2016, acknowledged he was looking at a new campus in Vienna and had already discussed plans with authorities there. “In case we need to upgrade in Vienna the campus needs to be operational there by September 2019,” he said.
CEU would always abide by the law, whatever it is, he said. “If there is an agreement with the Hungarian government, the status quo stays the same,” he said. “We will still open and expand the Vienna campus, including some undergraduate programs, and there will be programs at Bard too.
“If there is no agreement, there will be bigger operations in Vienna but we will maintain our presence in Budapest. Bard will develop then too.”
Under Plan A, CEU would keep its 1,300 students in Budapest and even grow to around 2,000. Plan B would see the entire 2019 class start in Vienna, about 500 people, which will gradually grow as further classes enroll, he said. Those already studying in Budapest would complete their courses there.
Ignatieff said the next eight weeks would be critical, adding CEU had got no negative signals from Orban. “We are hopeful that there will be an agreement,” he said.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted the deadline extension and said the government was examining papers submitted by CEU. “This inquiry is more complicated than those with other schools because there was no American mother institution originally,” the spokesperson said.
The government also plans new legislation on non-government organizations which has been nicknamed the “Stop Soros” law as it would primarily affect the billionaire’ s Open Society Foundations (OSF). Soros’s main financing organization, which Orban says promotes mass immigration against the will of the Hungarian people, is considering its future in Hungary and is widely expected to move to Berlin.
However, Ignatieff said: “Our problem is not with the Soros law. That does not affect us.”
(This story removes word “accreditation” from third and eighth paragraphs.)
Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by David Stamp