Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.
Communists knew that to control a society, you first got rid of its thinkers. In Stalin’s time, among the first to be shot by the NKVD or deported to Siberia were intellectuals, professors of law, scientists and writers.
Later waves of repression were usually less murderous. A state in power doesn’t need to threaten naked violence, when it can control people’s careers. Want that professorship? Make sure you research only the right questions (and come up with the “correct” answers too). Interesting op-ed you just published. Did we mention your department is being reconfigured? All staff will have to reapply for their jobs.
Even where universities are officially independent, they often take large quantities of government money, in the form of research grants and tuition subsidies. Unless strong legal safeguards are put in place, they are vulnerable to interference.
In Hungary, whose authoritarian president described his regime as an “illiberal democracy”, levers like this have brought most opposition to heel. Most, but not all.
The Central European University (CEU) has managed to evade his grasp. Founded by the Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, the CEU’s continued independence has so irked Viktor Orban (despite the fact he once won a scholarship from Soros’s foundation) that he’s contrived a special law to close it down, making its continuing operation dependent on Orban and Donald Trump agreeing to allow it to continue.
At issue is not the literal survival of the university (Austria has agreed to give it a home) but the survival of democracy in Hungary. The CEU has played a huge part in rebuilding Eastern Europe’s political culture, and helping liberal principles take root there. It’s no surprise that tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Budapest in protest, and 17 Nobel Prize winners have demanded the law be withdrawn.
A normal American President would have put heavy pressure on Hungary to back down, but Trump is more an emulator of Orban than his enemy, and has in any case not yet filled many senior positions in his State Department.
Other countries, including Britain, need to step into the gap. The principles on which the CEU is founded are our principles, too.
There are signs that its fate is concentrating minds. Crispin Blunt, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has started to focus on the issue. He told me yesterday that: “This as deeply concerning as it is doubly ironic. Viktor Orban was a legendary leader in the battle for freedom from Soviet Marxist authoritarian ideology. Freedom of ideas is universal, as should be the freedom of the institutions that nurture them.”
So far, the Foreign Office has been silent, however, and its Human Rights Twitter account (@FCOHumanRights) hasn’t thought it fit to mention the issue.
Yet if there is a single lesson for the UK to be drawn from European history, it is that authoritarian rule on our continent leads to instability and conflict that threatens British interests, and eventually British security. Whenever we’ve turned our back on attacks on democracy in Europe we’ve come to regret it.
The Prime Minister maintains that we may be leaving the EU, but not leaving Europe. It is in a European country that this vital institution has come under attack, as part of a campaign to undermine democratic institutions in Hungary. In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, dissidents in Eastern Europe could look to Britain to stand up for their liberty. Are we still the sort of people to whom democrats can turn?