Hungary is celebrating (or not) 25 years since Victor Orbán became PM for the first time. In his latest election campaigns, Orbán openly accused George Soros in colourful posters of encouraging illegal migration. The poster says: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”
One astonishing fact which seems to escape the Hungarian pro-Orbán media: Viktor has attended Pembroke College while at Oxford as a Soros Scholar 1989-1990. Orbán benefitted from the Soros scholarship in his own education, but he has made Soros and the Central European University (CEU) a target of his ‘illiberal democracy’ agenda. In April 2017, when the Hungarian government suggested a law putting the CEU at risk, the master of Pembroke College wrote a letter urging them to reconsider.
In 1991, billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist George Soros founded the CEU with an $880 million endowment, making the university one of the wealthiest in Europe on a per-student basis. In 2018, because of Orbán’s new law against accrediting its courses in Hungary, most of the campus was moved to Vienna.
Orbán feels that his ‘illiberal democracy’ is threatened by the central tenet of the university’s mission. The CEU promotes open societies, a result of its close association with Soros’s Open Society Foundations. CEU is a member of the CIVICA Alliance group of prestigious European higher education institutions.
They specialise in the social sciences, humanities, business management and public policy. Other members are Sciences Po (France), The London School of Economics and Political Science (UK), Bocconi University (Italy) and the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden). Maybe a closer look at Soros’s life explains why he is such a staunch supporter of ‘open society’.
Soros, a resident of New York since 1956, founded the CEU in his native Hungary because he wanted an independent and international university in the former Iron Curtain region. His background and childhood experiences there had made the development of democracy a special concern for him. He and his intellectual Jewish family had survived the Nazi persecutions in his native town of Budapest and also the siege in which Soviet and German forces fought house-to-house through the city. Soros also experienced a time when Jewish children were denied the basic human right of education.
At 17, George moved to Paris, before eventually moving to England to study philosophy at the London School of Economics. He was a student of the famous philosopher Karl Popper. Soros worked as a railway porter and as a waiter, and he would sometimes stand at Hyde Park talking about the virtues of internationalism in Esperanto, which he had learned from his lawyer father. Soros obtained his MSc in philosophy in 1954. It is said that he wanted to work at the university as a professor but his grades were not high enough. So he turned towards a career in finance. Promoted to work for an investment firm in London he became spectacularly successful and rich by 1991 when he founded the CEU in the city of his birth, Budapest.
Central European University
CEU is described by the Times Higher Education as
“an English-language university based in Vienna founded in 1991 by a group of visionary intellectuals – most of them prominent members of the anti-totalitarian democratic opposition…..
“Accredited in the United States, Austria and Hungary, the CEU offers degrees in the social sciences, humanities, law, public policy, business management, environmental science, and mathematics. It is considered to be an important university in Central Europe for social sciences and humanities.”
My interest in Central European University
CEU is an international university with its students coming from over 100 countries from across five continents. My interest in the university is not just based on its philosophy and its location in my native Budapest, but on its offer of regular events on society, democracy and history of Europe. The podcasts ‘Democracy in question’ by the rector of the university are of particular relevance to today’s Orbán anniversary.
Lord Hastings on democracy
One such event of 8 June 2022 was with Lord Hastings, the current chair of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). He was Commissioner at the Commission for Racial Equality and held numerous leading positions.
In the podcast, entitled ‘Faltering Democratic Systems and the Need to Reconstruct Democracy,’ Shalini Randeria, CEU director and rector, asks pertinent questions why democracy is faltering around the world, even in countries where it was previously well established.
Shalini wonders why the Lords, an unelected House of the UK Parliament, should be relevant in debating democracy. They ask if crises like Brexit or the war in Ukraine should encourage more serious debate on how democracy works. What can be done to halt the risk to democracy? What type of media and politicians can best stabilise faltering democracies? Do we need to reshape our thinking of democracy?
Lord Hastings thinks that we need to decentralise local democracy. The closer the democratic decisions are to the people and where they live, the more effective it can be. But we need grown up political leaders, especially during these times of war in Europe. He thinks that the rich countries of the world have underinvested in the development of future leaders. He believes that potential competent decision makers need to be encouraged to enter politics by training in colleges of political futures.
I tend to agree with many of the points made in this podcast, especially in the need for specialist training for future decision makers.
The CEU’s mission statement says:
“The CEU is a new model for international education, a centre for the study of contemporary economic, social and political challenges, and a source of support for building open and democratic societies that respect human rights and human dignity.”
CEU, founded by George Soros, and located in central Europe, is indeed a valuable institution, doing what its founder intended, radiating democratic values and, hopefully, incubating future democratic political leaders.