People protest the bill that would undermine Central European University in Budapest on Sunday. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

When Hungary’s government passed a law last week which was effectively intended to shut down Budapest’s Central European University, it surely anticipated that there would be a backlash. It probably did not anticipate mass demonstrations, or senior European politicians threatening to suspend Hungary’s membership of the European Union. Here is how Hungary’s government has gotten into this mess.

Hungary’s leader doesn’t like liberal democracy

Over the past several years, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in liberal democracy — the kind of democracy that characterizes consolidated democratic states, such as the United States and the countries of Western Europe. In a notorious speech in 2014, Orban proclaimed that liberal democracies were not globally competitive anymore. Instead, Orban said that he looked to states such as Russia, Turkey and China as examples of success, and argued that it should be possible to build an ‘illiberal democracy’ within the European Union. Instead of the liberal belief that disagreement is part and parcel of democratic politics, illiberal democracy looks to strong nationalism and a purportedly united population as the basis for democracy.

For a long while, Orban’s program appeared to be working. His party has dominated Hungarian politics in recent years, taking enough seats in Hungary’s parliament to be able to remake the constitution, and replacing troublesome judges on Hungary’s highest court. His liberal opponents have been in disarray.



Orban has targeted civil society groups

When the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary and other countries in Eastern Europe seemed on the verge of a democratic renaissance. Many people talked about the revival of “civil society” — groups and organizations which were not run by the government, or dominated by political parties, but which were supposed to play a crucial role in allowing people to talk about politics. NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) enjoyed a resurgence. Some of that resurgence was funded by George Soros’s Open Society organizations, which were built in part on the arguments of Karl Popper’s book, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” distinguishing between societies in which free debate was possible, and those which aspired instead to an impossible unity. Soros, who is Jewish, was born in Hungary, but left in 1947 after having to hide from the Nazis as a child. After the collapse of Communism, he devoted much of his considerable wealth to helping rebuild civil society in Eastern Europe, including providing a scholarship for a young Orban to study at Oxford. Soros also endowed the Central European University in Budapest, a graduate institution that would educate people in the social sciences, humanities, law and related disciplines.

After Orban came to power and abandoned his commitments to liberalism in favor of unitary nationalism, he began to see civil society groups as a problem. Orban began pushing for human rights groups and other civil society organizations that had received money from Soros to be expelled, claiming that they were the tools of “foreign interests.” Pro-government news outlets have made similar charges against Central European University, saying that it, too, serves foreign interests. The Hungarian government says that the new law is not intended as an attack against Central European University. However, most outside observers in Western Europe and the United States are skeptical of these claims.

This is a battle over open knowledge

Arguments about the role of civil society are, in large part, arguments about the role of independent knowledge and disagreement in public life. Civil society organizations aren’t political parties — instead they produce knowledge and information that is supposed to inform political debate. Universities, too, are supposed to play a key role in providing information and knowledge that is relevant to public debate.

The Czech-English political sociologist Ernest Gellner, who taught for a while at Central European University, wrote his last book in the early 1990s about the return of civil society to Central and Eastern Europe. Gellner noted the contradiction between arguments for civil society, which stress the value of disagreement and different perspectives within a country, and arguments for community and nationalism, which stress the importance of a shared and uniform culture. As Gellner (and Karl Popper, with whom Gellner had a sometimes friendly and sometimes adversarial relationship) argues, ideas about the plurality of knowledge — that no individual or group has a monopoly on valuable knowledge and information — are central to liberal society. They imply that governments have to pay attention to disagreements among a wide variety of groups, each with its own perspectives, information and interests, to figure out what best to do. Illiberal democracy suggests the contrary — that governments should represent the shared beliefs of a unified people, and that dissenters are potential threats rather than valuable sources of contrary knowledge.

Gellner also writes about the hostility of Central European nationalists to “cosmopolitan” ideals of intellectual and cultural exchange across borders.

The nationalists were hostile not merely to rival cultures, but also, and perhaps with special venom, to bloodless cosmopolitanism, probably in part because they perceived in it an ally of political centralism, and felt it to be a support for the old transnational empires against neo-ethnic irredentism. They felt special loathing for those they considered to be the principal carriers of such cosmopolitanism.

This helps explain the political battles over the Central European University and civil society today. Hungarian right-wing nationalists depict civil society organizations and institutions, such as the Central European University, as foreign and alien intrusions into Hungarian national society. Instead of foreign ideas, they appeal to national unity. It is notable that Orban’s government justifies both its push against civil society organizations and its new law on universities by appealing to national security, suggesting that foreign ideas and arguments threaten the security of the nation.

The European Union has been slow to respond

It isn’t surprising that the Orban government is trying to reestablish democracy on an illiberal basis. What is perhaps surprising is that the European Union, which Hungary is a member of, hasn’t responded strongly until very recently. Member states of the European Union are supposed to adhere to democratic principles, and the European Union was supposed to be the guarantor for democracy in the Central and Eastern European states that joined it in the 1990s. However, the E.U. has not forcefully condemned Hungary’s drift away from traditional democracy, although its executive agency, the European Commission, has taken action against Hungary’s breach of E.U. commitments to refugees.

There are two reasons for the lack of pushback. First, the E.U. has been undergoing a variety of crises over the last few years — the economic crisis, arguments over the E.U.’s single currency, migration and, most recently, Brexit. These crises have sapped its legitimacy, making it less willing to pick a fight with one of its more significant members, especially after Poland too elected a government committed to populist nationalism and skeptical of foreign influences. Second, the European Union is a clubby institution that does not like to single out member state governments for harsh criticisms. Orban’s political party, Fidesz, is furthermore a member of one of Europe’s most influential clubs, the European People’s Party (EPP), which is an E.U.-level grouping of most of Europe’s big right-of-center parties. The EPP has been notably protective of Fidesz and Orban, even as criticism has mounted.

This may be changing

Orban’s new law has provoked a far stronger reaction in the E.U. than he likely expected. Many European politicians have straightforwardly denounced it, and Hungary’s own European Commissioner, who is a member of the Fidesz party, has come out against the bill. Most importantly, perhaps, the EPP is visibly starting to split, perhaps depriving Orban of his protective cloak. A spokeswoman for Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany (and plausibly the most important figure in the European center right), has made it clear that Germany will be following the bill’s effects closely. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s leader in the European Parliament, has said in a tweet that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” He has also asked that the European Commission assess the law.

This may be in part a play for time, hoping that the controversy will have died down when the Commission issues its report. It also, however, indicates serious embarrassment in the EPP, which has been subjected to repeated calls from members of other European Union political groupings, demanding that the EPP expel Fidesz. Finally, it opens up a serious threat to Hungary. People in the European Parliament are talking about trying to invoke Article 7 of the European Union’s founding treaties, which allows member states of the European Union to have membership rights suspended if there is a “serious breach” of democracy and human rights. Under this article, the European Parliament can make a “reasoned proposal” to the council of member states, saying that there is a clear risk of a serious breach — the council can then make a determination with a majority of four-fifths of member states, together with the European Parliament.

The European Parliament will only do this if the main opposition parties are supported by enough EPP defectors. Weber’s statement means that it is at least possible that this could happen, if the European Commission comes back with a sufficiently harsh assessment. This would then leave the final determination to the member states. It’s not at all certain that enough of the member states would agree — some, like Poland, might fear that they would be the next targets, while others may simply be reluctant to take such an unprecedented step. Even so, the beginning of the process may be enough to impose substantial political damage on Orban’s government. It would become the first E.U. government to be formally singled out for undemocratic behavior, setting an extraordinary new precedent.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.