Voluntary Servitude? The Matter of CEU

by David Baer

International criticism of a new Hungarian law targeting the operation of Central European University has been unprecedentedly severe – and that’s saying a lot, given the harsh criticisms Viktor Orbán’s government has received in recent years. The President of Germany has spoken out publicly in defense of CEU, and even President Trump’s State Department issued a critical statement. Meanwhile American news outlets, from the mainstream New York Times and Washington Post, to the conservative leaning American Interest and the leftist Vox, have all covered the story critically.

The severity of the criticism mirrors the brazenness of the law. Although Viktor Orbán has been chipping away at democratic institutions since assuming power in 2010, this newest attack on Hungary’s most prestigious university, a symbol of Hungarian-American friendship, and bastion of high caliber intellectual inquiry, has crossed a line so obvious that even Hungary’s apologists are at a loss for words. If in the past Orbán could work to explain away suspicious legislation, he has been unable to produce even the most superficially plausible explanation for “Lex CEU.” The most frequently offered explanation, namely, that CEU is the instrument of a world-wide liberal conspiracy orchestrated by the rich, evil genius of Jewish descent, George Soros, is too outrageous to dupe even the most gullible foreign observer. North and West of the Danube, Hungary is universally perceived as an autocratic regime. Freedom House now ranks Hungarian democracy below Bulgaria and Romania.

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