Brussels hits Orbán where it really hurts — education
William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague and covers Central Europe.
In its long-running rule-of-law dispute with Budapest, Brussels may have just stumbled on a tactic that cuts closer to the bone for Hungarian Prime MinisterViktor Orbán than anything it has attempted so far: targeting the ruling Fidesz party’s influence on higher education.
When it emerged last month that the European Commission would block grants for the Erasmus+ student exchange and Horizon Europe research schemes to 21 universities being managed by Fidesz-linked public trusts, the panic from Hungarian ministers was palpable. The move was described as “unacceptable and intolerable,” and two ministers leading the government’s handling of the rule-of-law dispute quickly flew to Brussels for talks on the issue. One of these ministers, Tibor Navracsics, suggested a quick fix would be forthcoming, but EU authorities have cast doubt on this, and Hungary’s government spokesperson warned that legal steps will be taken if the situation isn’t resolved fast.
This reaction, as well as the resulting coverage in both Hungary’s government-allied and opposition media, suggests that this is about much more than just the money being withheld. After all, €40 million in Erasmus funding is a trifling sum compared to the billions of euros in cohesion funds currently being withheld from Hungary.
Many of Orbán’s opponents dismiss Fidesz as a kleptocracy, but the truth is that party has deep cultural and intellectual roots that it’s keen to nurture. Control over the dissemination of knowledge and ideas, and the framing of cultural debates are essential underpinnings of Orbán’s political ecosystem. His is a project that has long-term power goals — and that’s why an attack on Fidesz’s influence on higher education is so significant.
Orbán has been utterly open about the link between knowledge and power. And his government influences the information that citizens receive daily through the media, while also shaping an overarching conservative intellectual climate through academia.
Speaking to a meeting of the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest last year, Orbán said conservatives “must have our own media” in order to “show up the insane ideas of the progressive left.” In an ideal world, he said, politics and the press would be kept independent of each other, but as left-wing forces have already broken this covenant, it’s only fair for conservatives to follow suit.
Similar motives lie behind his interventions in academia, a sector often seen by conservatives as institutionally biased toward progressive and left-wing ideas. Fidesz has actively promoted a conservative intellectual culture, celebrating thinkers like the English philosopher Roger Scruton — a favorite of Margaret Thatcher — drawing in like-minded academics from around the world.
However, after a wave of university privatizations in recent years, politicians’ role in maintaining this academic environment has become increasingly obvious. Fidesz cabinet ministers, past and present, now head up “public trusts,” which control some of Hungary’s leading higher education establishments — and it’s this apparent political oversight that’s led the EU to block funding.
Students at affected universities are, understandably, furious.
Orbán portrayed the funding block as the EU taking “revenge” on Hungarian youth, saying “Brussels has a vision of the future which is at odds with what Hungarians think.” And to achieve this, EU politicians “want a change of government” in Budapest, he says.
Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyás threatened that the government would consider taking the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, claiming the Commission’s decision violates Article 13 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which holds that “the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.”
The funding block’s legal basis in the EU’s rule-of-law conditionality mechanism is also under question, with some arguing that stopping Hungarian students from participating in Erasmus+ makes no difference to protecting the financial interests of the EU, even if those students attend universities that are under Fidesz’s influence. Hungarian opposition politicians have also expressed concern that the Commission’s move will hurt students instead of the Orbán regime.
The Hungarian government’s response suggests otherwise, however. And if Brussels sticks to its guns, the targeting of Hungarian academia could, indeed, strike a blow to Orbán’s conservative project.
It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that universities under Hungarian public trusts engage in any kind of pro-Fidesz ideological indoctrination. Yet, even so, they play a vital role in nudging the knowledge environment, helping sustain the party’s grip on power.
Fidesz’s emphasis on having “its own” media and academic institutions works as a safeguard against the so-called left-wing capture of institutions in other Western countries. As “O’Sullivan’s First Law” has it, “all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.”
In this context, conservative intellectualism is seen by Orbán as something that — much like traditional Christian notions of family and gender — is of fundamental importance and needs to be protected from progressives.
This attitude provides a unique take on another famous maxim, that “politics is downstream from culture,” as a flourishing conservative intellectual culture forms a key part of the knowledge ecosystem that facilitates Fidesz’s rule.
It’s arguably this relationship between the state and academia — and between politicians and intellectuals — that really singles Orbán out from Europe’s other “populist” leaders. Orbán isn’t a political chameleon, and Fidesz’s particular potency stems from the fact that its style of governance has a strong intellectual underpinning. As such, cutting international funding of Hungarian academia could hit Fidesz much harder than many realize.