Students, teachers of the Central European University and their sympathizers protest in front of the university in Budapest on April 4, 2017. Hungarian lawmakers approved legislation that could force the closure of a prestigious Budapest university founded by US billionaire investor George Soros, sparking fresh protests. The English-language Central European University (CEU), set up in 1991 after the fall of communism, has long been seen as a hostile bastion of liberalism by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government. / AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PETER MURPHYATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
Students and teachers of the Central European University protest against Hungary’s new education law, which could force the institution to close © AFP

When Hungary shook off communism in 1989, the nation’s prospects of constructing a liberal democracy seemed brighter than perhaps anywhere in central and eastern Europe except Poland. Those days were a distant memory on Tuesday when the Hungarian government rammed a law through parliament that piles pressure on the Central European University, a Budapest-based bastion of academic independence and freedom of thought.

Under Viktor Orban, the conservative nationalist who has served as prime minister since 2010, Hungary has retreated far from the values of tolerance and political pluralism that inspired the anti-communist opposition of the 1980s. The likelihood of an early return to liberal democracy appears correspondingly remote.

At one level, Mr Orban’s new law represents an attempt to purge Hungary of the influence of George Soros, the 86-year-old Budapest-born billionaire philanthropist, who funded the university’s creation in 1991. At another level, it is an extension of Mr Orban’s attacks on domestic and foreign non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Transparency International.

Not content with Vladimir Putin-like denunciations of these groups as “foreign agents” with ties to western intelligence services, Mr Orban appalled international refugee organisations in March by passing a law that foresees the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, even children, for the whole period of their asylum application. Hungary has repeatedly refused to accept EU quotas for resettling refugees.

Meanwhile, Mr Orban and his ruling Fidesz party have seized control of once-independent institutions such as the constitutional court and the public prosecutor’s office. In October, publication of Nepszabadsag, the country’s leading opposition newspaper, was suspended.

The government’s unashamed rejection of liberal western values poses an awkward challenge to the EU, of which Hungary has been a member since 2004, and to the US, which leads the Nato alliance that Hungary joined in 1999. Both the EU and America were quick to criticise the university law, but neither is really sure how tough to get with Mr Orban.

Under Article 7 of the EU’s treaty, a country can lose its voting rights if all other member states determine that the nation is in serious, persistent breach of EU values. But the requirement for unanimity means that this step is extremely unlikely to be taken.

Furthermore, there is no provision under Article 7 for withholding EU financial subsidies to an offending member. If there were, it might make Mr Orban think twice before proceeding further down the path of political repression. From 2004 to 2014, EU aid transfers to Hungary averaged about 2.4 per cent of Hungarian gross domestic product.

Nothing better illustrates the EU’s reluctance to be firm with Mr Orban than the welcome he receives at gatherings of the European People’s party, the pan-European centre-right group of which Fidesz is a member. At an EPP event last month in Malta, Mr Orban depicted Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis in apocalyptic terms as the defence of Christian civilisation against a Muslim immigrant “invasion”.

Hungary is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in early 2018. The leftist opposition is divided, demoralised and anticipating its third consecutive defeat. But the nation is an increasingly atomised society in which political non-participation is rising, inequality is reaching record levels and young, skilled Hungarians are desperate to emigrate. If Mr Orban’s illiberal power apparatus reigns supreme, it is a long way from the high hopes of 1989.

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