- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
The European Union has begun taking legal action against Hungary over a law that would effectively shut down Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros in 1991.
On Wednesday, a formal letter of notice was sent to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government asking for an explanation as to why it violated EU law by passing a piece of legislation that, for all intents and purposes, is custom-drafted to shut down a university. Hungary has one month to respond to the commission’s “legal concerns.”
The law to shut down CEU is hardly the most egregious thing Orban or his Fidesz party have done to erode democracy in what is still, for now, an EU state and a NATO member. But the law gives Brussels a specific step that can be challenged by European bureaucracy to take Hungary to task more broadly for embracing illiberalism. In a way, it’s like Turkey’s opposition party challenging the recent, deeply flawed constitutional referendum in European court: For all its flaws, Europe still has some institutions that amount to a break-the-glass last resort by which creeping authoritarianism can be checked.
The notice was sent ahead of a debate in the European Parliament, also held on Wednesday. Orban was present, at his own request, and as he is wont to do, blamed Soros for trying to wield undue influence over Hungary. He also said that Hungary had always respected the rules of the European Union, although it believed that the EU was in need of reform. He stressed that his country is unquestionably dedicated to European values, and that members of the European Parliament should stick to the facts of the matter at hand.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not well-received by many members of the European Parliament in a debate that touched not only on CEU, but also on Hungary’s oft-criticized stance on refugees — and on European values more broadly. Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party, a grouping that includes Fidesz, criticized Orban’s “Stop Brussels” campaign, national consultation asking Hungarian citizens for their aid in blocking Brussels’ influence.
Those on the left minced no words. “You’re lying and you know that you are lying,” Gianni Pittella, head of the Socialists and Democrats group, cried, warning, “Don’t go back to Budapest saying it’s all our fault.”
Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, reminisced of first meeting Orban, back when the prime minister was a democrat; he likened him to a Hungarian Emmanuel Macron. “But times have changed. You have changed.” Now, Verhofstadt said, Orban wants to keep the EU’s money, but not its values, giving in instead to paranoia. “You see enemies everywhere … It’s like Stalin or Brezhnev are back.”
Philippe Lamberts, co-president of the Greens, asked why Orban, with his secure parliamentary majority, was so afraid of a free media and civil society.
Orban found some friends, though. Nigel Farage, who after engineering the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union can’t get enough of his European parliamentary spotlight, suggested Orban joined “the Brexit club.”
But Orban is unlikely to do so, of his own volition or kicked out by Brussels. To invoke Article 7, the mechanism through which the European Council warns a country that it’s in violation of Europe’s fundamental rights, requires unanimity from the other member states. Poland in particular seems a fellow traveler for Hungary.
On Wednesday, Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, a MEP from Poland’s Law and Justice party — which rivals Fidesz for its embrace of illiberal principles — called universities “a place of repression” for conservatives.
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