Closed Schools, Closed Minds: the Hungarian Threat to European Principles

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The current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, has not fully embodied moderates’ fear about Europe’s new right-wing parties – but this is not for lack of trying.

In 2013, a constitutional reform made the legislature more compact by cutting the members of the Hungarian parliament nearly in half, while recent laws have widely been derided for compromising the independence of the judiciary system. Orbán has also repeatedly undermined the European Union’s tenets regarding freedom of movement, and last October the country’s largest left-wing newspaper abruptly ceased operations under unclear circumstances.

This month, Orbán’s latest law, requiring universities accredited in multiple countries to operate campuses in every country in which they are recognized, has perhaps caused the largest outcry. It has been attacked by commentators in Hungary, the rest of Europe, and the United States, as a thinly veiled attack on the Central European University, commonly called the CEU.

The Central European University is a private institute of higher learning focusing on social sciences founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros; Soros and prominent faculty members have been outspoken critics of the Hungarian premier, and this move is largely seen as a ploy to kick them out of the country, or at least deprive them of an important platform.

The attack on the CEU has faced harsh extra-parliamentary opposition; thousands of students have taken to the streets in protest, while over 400 intellectuals from around the world have signed a statement condemning Orbán’s actions. In part, this response can be attributed to the mounting domestic and international opposition to Orbán’s increasingly brazen disregard for liberal democratic values. However there also is something specific about an attack on a private and international institution of higher learning that strikes a chord with European intellectuals.

International universities are, quite possibly, the oldest and strongest force of European integration. In the 16th century Archiginnasio library building, formerly the seat of the University of Bologna, the family crests of illustrious students decorate the interior walls to this day; the crests marked with demonyms such as Alemannus or Aragonesis are almost as frequent as those from the historical Italian states. The most elaborate of these decorative crests commemorates one Diego de Leon Garavito, a sixteenth century Peruvian Criollo who spent some time in Bologna while studying law at the University of Salamanca, in Spain.

Indeed, Diego de Leon Gravito is a testament to the fact that the ability to attract an international student body has long been the mark of a successful European university. It is safe to say that today’s European Union’s Erasmus exchange program is simply the institutionalization of a historic tradition by which universities are able to easily permeate national borders. And when publicly-funded European universities have proven themselves sluggish and ossified, private universities like the CEU have picked up the slack.

In fact, when the CEU was founded in 1991, the growth of private institutions all over Europe was shadowing and reinforcing the accelerating European integration process which culminated in the Maastricht treaty. The French École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (more commonly called ESCP) had been expanding since the 1980s, establishing campuses in Germany, Spain and Italy. In 1990, the Ramon Llull University was founded in Barcelona, today known for being the home of the famed ESADE Business School where only four percent of the student body hails from Spain. That same decade, Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, undertook a revolutionary reorganization and abandoned the traditional Italian university structure. Nowadays, one-fourth of Bocconi graduates go on to work outside of Italy, and going on to earn an MBA or MSc degree from a university like ESADE or ESCP is not only common; it is actively encouraged.

Graduates and faculty members of all these institutions have gone on to serve in governments all over Europe. Without these nimble institutions fostering professional, academic and social connections across the European continent, the EU’s educational integration initiatives, like the “Bologna Process” homogenizing university degrees, would have no precedent to follow.  

In light of Orbán’s pressure, the CEU may decide to relocate; many are suggesting the University will move to Prague, where it was originally located in the early 1990s. However, it should not be the role of government to regulate how an academic institution can and cannot operate, much less at a private one. Academia is already subject to stringent peer review, and therefore the attempt by a  government to heap additional requirements is a transparent transgression against a central, underlying tenet of the European Union. Perhaps more alarmingly, does this mean the European Union does not realize that institutions like the CEU are key components of European unity?

Lastly, what does this mean for our own institution? Of all the major political parties in Italy, only one is wholeheartedly europeanist. Although this party, the PD, is currently in power, with elections coming later this year a change of government is imminent. All manner of new ruling coalitions could emerge, and the inclusion of the xenophobic Northern League or the populist Five Star Movement in a new government, although improbable, is not impossible. Parliamentarians from both those parties have called into question Italy’s relationship with both the EU and the United States.

Does the precedent set by Orbán mean that there are no safeguards in place should legislation cut off SAIS’ dual-degree programs with European Universities, or worse yet, threaten our independence?

Before becoming an M.A. candidate at SAIS Bologna, Yuri Serafini worked in asset management in Europe. He has a B.Sc. from Bocconi University. You can follow him on twitter at @Yuri_Serafini


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