How a university became a battle for Europe’s identity

Michael Ignatieff is not a person you would expect to find at the centre of a global political power play featuring names such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

He was the rangy intellectual presenter on late night TV arts shows of the early 1990s in the UK, who looked like he might moonlight in an experimental jazz band.

The author and academic entered politics in his native Canada, becoming leader of the opposition party, before last autumn taking on a job as president of the Central European University in Hungary.

Mr Ignatieff, in his late sixties, might have been forgiven for thinking that this was a job before retirement – but instead he has stepped into a political storm.

But the university has become a symbolic battleground between liberal internationalism and a rising tide of populist nationalism – with loud protests that the Hungarian government is trying to close it down.

‘Crossing a line’

Mr Ignatieff says it would be the first time a post-War European state had “got away with shutting down a free university”.

“That’s what makes it unprecedented. That’s what makes it shocking.

“Now that’s crossing a line. We haven’t been there before.

“We see absolutely no reason why we should be forced out of Budapest, we think it’s outrageous,” says the university president, speaking in London.

Michael IgnatieffMichael Ignatieff, former TV presenter, is now in charge of the embattled university in Budapest

“We’re a free institution, and this is about a drive to control,” says Mr Ignatieff.

The Hungarian government has insisted this is not the case and the university has only to fall in line with new higher education regulations.

And over the weekend, there were signs that Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party would bow to pressure from the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping to protect “basic freedoms”.

East or west

But this is a dispute with deep roots – not least in relation to the role of the university’s funder, George Soros.

The Budapest-born billionaire and Holocaust survivor has been a prominent backer of liberal causes.

Central European UniversityThe university occupies a building that has been an aristocrat’s palace and Communist-run offices

And Mr Ignatieff says Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has had a “longstanding vendetta” against Mr Soros.

Mr Orban, in turn, told the European Parliament last week that it was Mr Soros who was the aggressor against Hungary.

Mr Soros has other feuds running.

He has called US President Donald Trump a “con man and would-be dictator” and has become a hate figure for some of the US president’s supporters.

He has also been a vocal opponent of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

And at the weekend, demonstrators in Budapest were chanting: “Europe, not Moscow,” fearing that the push against the university was part of a move to look eastwards rather than west.

Victor OrbanHungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, rejected criticism at the European Parliament

Adding spice to the antagonism is the fact that Mr Orban’s early career was helped by a grant from George Soros in the late-1980s, bringing him to study in Oxford.

The young student who wrote about civil society and the transition to democracy is now the prime minister facing street protests.

And there have been some who have seen this all as a proxy struggle between a liberal establishment and the supporters of Mr Trump, Mr Putin and Mr Orban.

In the French presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron is accusing his opponent, Marine le Pen, of being part of an alliance with Mr Orban and Mr Putin.

‘False allegations’

The Central European University (CEU) is a liberal, international institution, accredited in the US as well as Hungary, and created to promote democratic values after the end of Soviet rule.

Mr Ignatieff was speaking at the University of East London, about projects that both universities run to support refugees – another position unlikely to win friends with those hostile to immigration.

But the CEU president says it has been a major miscalculation to believe that the Trump presidency would line up against the university.

“I think one of the assumptions that Mr Orban must have made is that if he squashed an American institution, the Trump administration wouldn’t care – because it’s associated with liberalism and all these hated things.

“In fact the American administration has been extremely forthright, right out of the gate.”

CEU protestSupporters of the university have staged protests in Budapest

The dispute over the university has continued to ripple outwards – with a surrounding digital blizzard of claim, counter-claim and fake news.

The European Commission has launched proceedings against Hungary, with vice-president Frans Timmermans saying the country’s new rules on higher education were “perceived by many as an attempt to close down the Central European University”.

A collection of European scientists has written to Mr Orban to say moves against the university were “totally at odds with what we thought was taken for granted in free democracies”.

But Mr Orban’s reply showed no sign of changing direction.

He wrote back that the scientists’ claims do not “correspond with reality” and there had been “false allegations” and an “international disinformation campaign” against Hungary’s government.

Line in the sand

So what happens next?

Until anything else is confirmed, Mr Ignatieff says that from October the university’s licence can be withdrawn and they will be unable to recruit students.

“We’re not going to shut down, but we may have to leave the country.”

And he says that they have received offers from six other countries to take the university.

protestThere have been a series of street protests against threats to the university

But he is still campaigning to stay in Budapest – and not wanting to burn any bridges, emphasises that there is no political challenge to Mr Orban.

“This is not fascism. This is a populist democrat, he won a free and fair election. In Budapest, you’re not in the deep freeze of Communist Hungary or fascist Germany.”

Mr Ignatieff also says the hand of Mr Putin shouldn’t be seen everywhere: “We invest in Putin powers that he can only dream of. We pump the guy up bigger than he actually is.”

But this is a line in the sand, says Mr Ignatieff. If universities can be shut down in the heart of Europe, then what does it mean for the future of democracy?

“Democracy is not just majority rule, it’s not just free media, it’s not just a free judiciary. It’s about institutions that have the right to govern themselves,” he says.

“This is a battle for something I really care about, this is really deep in me.

“Universities are infuriating, they’re difficult. But if you want a democracy, you want free institutions. It’s really important.”

“This is one I couldn’t afford to miss and one I can’t afford to lose.”

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