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Fighting for Liberalism—and a University

Viktor Orban is trying to force a symbol of international cooperation and academic independence out of Budapest. Why isn't the U.S. doing more?

Police guard the Hungarian parliament during a protest against the regime's treatment of the Central European University. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Viktor Orban is on a roll. Since his landslide re-election in April, Hungary’s prime minister has been promoting himself as a European mouthpiece of the nationalist populism sweeping the continent. Now he’s anticipating a new milestone at home in the establishment of “illiberal democracy,” a term he coined: shuttering Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), one of the top-ranked universities in the region, and a symbol of international cooperation.

A cherished project of the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros following the communist collapse in 1989, the CEU was conceived to “help facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy” by educating new generations. It has become Hungary’s leading university, a bastion of academic freedom and symbol of open society that attracts students from around the world. But the CEU’s administrators say they will be forced to relocate to Vienna if the Hungarian government refuses to provide the university certification by December 1.

Orban’s campaign against the CEU represents his latest means of consolidating power. Since taking office in 2010, he has eroded the rule of law and other fundamental freedoms with assaults against judicial independence, media, and civil society while overseeing a rise of corruption that has included funneling both European Union money and control of key sectors of the economy to his allies. Among them, four super-rich cronies—including Orban’s son-in-law—won 5 percent of public procurement contracts between 2010 and 2016 to the tune of more than $2 billion, according to one study. Their bids averaged 13 times the size of all the others. Orban has repeatedly thumbed his nose at protests from the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.

As late as this spring, the international community stood by as he purged the judiciary by forcing the resignations of scores of judges. This time, however, the United States has attempted to draw a line, with Washington’s ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, declaring the CEU’s presence in Budapest to be the most important subject of his tenure so far, saying “that’s how important it is to me and to the American people.” Other American officials, including members of Congress and the State Department, have also weighed in with support for the university, recognizing its closure as a troubling new line.

How Washington responds to continued defiance by the Hungarian government in the coming days will be significant. In early November, I was one of seventy other signatories of a statement by the Washington-based bipartisan Transatlantic Democracy Working Group which argued that the CEU’s fate is an important test of the Trump administration’s promise to seek “principled engagement” with Hungary. Closing the CEU, unlike the purging of Hungary’s judiciary, is also a clear act against Western and specifically United States relations with Hungary—and therefore a much more direct strike against U.S. interests than Orban’s previous misdeeds, which American officials largely wrote off as a European issue. If the American foreign policy establishment and an impending Democratic majority in Congress accepts a major violation of transatlantic values by a fellow NATO member state—with its implications for Western security—what is it good for?

The CEU is not just a bulwark against illiberalism in Hungary or Eastern Europe. The threat against it also concerns U.S. influence in the world, and the central role Democrats and their Republican foreign policy allies in Washington must play in upholding the transatlantic alliance while the current president is busy undermining it.

Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked NATO members, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization itself, and the G7. He’s praised Orban, making common cause with the Hungarian leader in vilifying Soros, a Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest during World War II and has spent billions of dollars supporting democratic institutions and civil society around the world. But a loud congressional response to the CEU’s impending closure would send an important signal that Americans haven’t forgotten the 20th century’s terrible lessons about inaction over threats to democracy.

Orban’s attacks against the CEU have been mounting for some time. Last year, the Hungarian parliament amended a law on higher education to make operations for the university almost impossible. To comply with a Byzantine new requirement for the New York-registered university to maintain a foreign presence, the CEU set up programs with Bard College.

Then Orban’s Fidesz Party launched a series of anti-Semitic personal attacks against Soros ahead of April’s parliamentary elections, accusing him of encouraging migrants to Europe and seeking to erase Hungarian national identity. Following his victory, Orban promised revenge against his opponents, and the CEU was informed there would be no deal. In June, the government passed a “Stop Soros” law banning organizations from providing assistance to undocumented immigrants.

Leaders on the continent have begun to act, however slowly. The European Parliament invoked Article 7 of the bloc’s founding treaty against Hungary in September for undermining the EU’s core values, threatening Budapest with the loss of its voting rights. The CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff warned ahead of the vote that the university’s fate, particularly in the context of Orban’s multifaceted assault on liberalism, was “not an abstract issue. A lot of the future of Europe hangs in the balance.”

Daniel Berg, a CEU graduate who now helps lead the new opposition party Momentum, agrees, saying the expulsion of an independent academic institution for political reasons in an EU member state is unprecedented. “This is a watershed moment for Central Europe,” he said in Washington this week. “It’s a battle for hearts and minds. The United States needs to be there and not cede the region to Russian influence.”

Orban, who has gravitated toward Moscow, has relished the fight, which has enabled him to appeal to voters as defender of the nation. But he shouldn’t be allowed to walk away unscathed. Although the CEU will almost certainly have to move, crossing such lines must be seen to bring consequences. The options include sanctions and visa bans against those who took part in the CEU decision, many of them achievable by Congress alone. Others have already detailed the way the Global Magnitsky Act can and probably should already have been used to sanction some of the most brazen kleptocrats in Orban’s circle.

Symbols matter. With Trump’s attacks on our European allies almost certain to escalate in the two years before the next presidential election, responsible leaders in Washington must prioritize defending the transatlantic alliance—a partnership that underpins Western democracy, and is crucial for addressing everything from joint security to climate change. Preventing the normalization of Orban’s illiberalism would send a vital signal that Americans can still lead in the world. If they won’t defend this unambiguously positive symbol of international cooperation inside a member of NATO and the EU, what do they stand for?