Commentary: The outsized power of Hungary’s Viktor Orban

Closing a major university is a big deal. Created, staffed and maintained at large, usually public, expense, universities serve both a utilitarian and an idealistic purpose: to provide the highly-educated workforce modern economies require, and to uphold and further civilized values through the understanding of the world the various academic disciplines claim to provide.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses supporters after the announcement of partial results in parliamentary elections in Budapest. April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Yet one of Europe’s academic gems trembles on the verge of closure. The Central European University in Budapest, which had hoped to be spared earlier this year, will, according to its rector, be forced to largely cease operations in Hungary if, by the beginning of next year, it does not receive the government’s permission to continue – a permission long awaited, but so far denied.

Relatively small – with some 1500 graduate students – CEU teaches a range of subjects, including social sciences, law, management and mathematics. Consistently ranked among the top 100 universities of the world, it is also one of the most multinational, with students from over 100 countries, including many from Hungary itself. Thanks to a privately-provided and secure endowment, CEU is also one of the richest universities in Europe.

Its existential dilemma is inscribed in its foundation, or rather its founder. The man who provided CEU with an endowment that is now worth about $610 million, and who serves as honorary chairman of its board of trustees, is George Soros, who was born in Budapest in 1930 to a Jewish family that survived the war by obtaining false identity documents. Soros immigrated to the UK in 1947, and attended the London School of Economics – where the open society ideas of the LSE scholar Karl Popper provided a moral and political basis for the rest of his life. His fabulously successful fund management made him a fortune of many billions – of which more than $30 billion have been donated, through his Open Society Foundations, to a range of causes, many of them in Eastern and Central Europe. And it is in these states where he is now presented, by their leaders, as a figure of near-diabolic malignance.

Stripped to its essentials, Soros espouses the values of radical cosmopolitanism against those of radical nationalism. Above all else, his championing of the needs of the millions of migrants entering, or striving to enter, Europe has roused the fury of the east-central states’ political establishments. And nowhere is this more so than in the country of his birth, where the prime minister, Viktor Orban, has run nationwide advertising campaigns that represented him as a major threat – and where in elections in April, Orban’s Fidesz party again won over two-thirds of parliamentary seats.

Michael Ignatieff, the writer, human rights scholar, former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and, since 2016, rector of the CEU, tells me he cannot know if he and the CEU must up sticks and move out of Budapest; no one in government can (or will) tell him what is in their leader’s mind. He has signed a deal to create a campus in Vienna, as a precaution, but he sees the troubles which afflict his charge set on a larger canvas, against the struggles within the European Union for its future.

“The three leading individuals in Europe today are [French President Emmanuel] Macron, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel…and Orban. It is a remarkable thing, that the prime minister of a country of 10 million people should now be in that position – it’s a testimony to his strategic tenacity and his vision.”

Ignatieff’s triptych of leaders expresses with some clarity the increasingly divergent views of the EU’s future. In Merkel is the quintessence of steady-as-she-goes, a conservative posture strengthened by the strong swing in the September 2017 elections against the two main parties, Merkel’s own Christian Democratic-Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats, again in coalition but with only a small majority over the resurgent smaller parties, with the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland now the major opposition force. For her, a radical deepening of EU integration risks bolstering the nationalist-populist currents, whose victory in Italy further underpins her caution. Reducing the pressure on EU members to cut debt by reining in public spending means, many inside and outside her party believe, leaving Germany to subsidize lax governance.

Macron is the apostle of “profound transformation” – necessary, he argues, if the Union’s motor is not to stall, causing it to slide back into a mere collection of states with trade agreements and some cooperation, but guarding their sovereignty and descending into beggar-my-neighbor policies. He needs Merkel’s Germany to refuel and rev up that motor; it has done so for decades, though falteringly in the recent past. Though Merkel has signalled limited support, other states have made clear their disagreements, pressing for an end to integrationist policies, even for a return of powers to national parliaments.

The Hungarian prime minister stands for something different. As Ignatieff says, he is both strategically tenacious and visionary, and the vision is of separate, sovereign nation states whose allegiance to Europe is based not on an ideal of federalist political union, but of shared cultural norms.

Orban has in the past spoken of his preference for an “illiberal democracy,” shorn of what he sees as the failed nostrums of multiculturalism, anti-nationalism and open borders. More recently, he has dropped the illiberalism in favor of a “Christian democracy,” but one sharply different from the policies of the Western European Christian and social democratic parties, whom he regards as effete. His would be instead a reassertion of a Christianity defined as a church militant, opposing the dilution of its religious values by alien, even hostile forces. Europe, seen by EU founders and their descendants as an open society, becomes more of a fortress. No wonder, then, that Soros and all his works should be identified as an enemy.

Visions need practical underpinnings. Hungary, nearly 30 years after the end of communism, is largely successful economically, but increasingly constrained politically. Notably, the opposition news media are in crisis, starved of state advertising, avoided by domestic and foreign companies reluctant to upset a powerful government. Politics lean heavily to the anti-immigrant right: second to Fidesz in the April poll was Jobbik, a far-right party which, though it has made efforts to moderate its raw anti-Semitism, remains as hostile to immigration (and to Soros) as the governing Fidesz. To talk to oppositionists is to encounter men and women who had hoped the elections would see some resurgence of the liberal and leftist parties – only to see a further decline. Orban bolsters his dominance by weakening the institutions of the opposition – aided by their inability to unite, or to find a leader with as compelling a vision in contrast to his.

Macron, Merkel and Orban: these three. At present, as Central Europe reflects his views, as Italy’s new government shares many of them, as Britain continues its march to the exit and, as many more states recoil from than share Macron’s views, the greatest of these may be Orban.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.