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In Wake of European Parliament Resolution, Thousands Protest in Budapest Against ‘Lex CEU’ and Proposed Government NGO Restrictions

Tom Szigeti 2017.05.22.

In what is the latest of a series of large-scale protests in the Hungarian capital, yesterday thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against recent actions and policies of the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition government.

Protesters crossing Budapest's Liberty Bridge, heading toward the Parliament (Photo: Huffington Post/Dora Papp)

Protesters crossing Budapest’s Liberty Bridge, heading toward the Parliament (Photo: Huffington Post/Dora Papp)

Anti-government civil groups held a protest under the motto “We won’t let go of our future; we’re here to stay!” According to Hungarian news site Index.hu, protesters numbered in the thousands.

Chief among the demonstrators’ grievances are the government’s controversial “Lex CEU” higher-education amendment, as well as planned legislation that would target NGOs that receive foreign funding.

Protesters marched from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) in Buda, to the Parliament building in Pest.

Henriett Dinok, head of the Romaversitas Foundation, described the positive impact that CEU has had in integrating Hungary’s Roma community into society. She also told participants gathered in front of BME that “it is not Brussels that should be stopped but our parasitic oligarchs”.

Katalin Lukacsi, a former KDNP Member of Parliament, noted she had recently quit parliament, citing the way in which the government handled refugees, and in protest against the “extermination” of leftist-leaning daily Nepszabadsag, as well as Hungary’s recent law “aimed against” the Central European University in Budapest.

While the Orbán government claims that the “Lex CEU” is meant to address “irregularities” among foreign universities operating in Budapest, the legislation is widely perceived as targeting on institution in particular: The Central European University (CEU), which was founded by Soros a quarter-century ago, and routinely ranks as the best university in Hungary.

The government’s move has been met with widespread criticism and concern. Politicians, academic institutions, and researchers around the world have expressed their support for CEU and their condemnation of the Hungarian government’s actions; the list of CEU supporters stretches from Hungarian EU Commissioner and Fidesz member Tibor Navracsics, to the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, to leaders at international universities like Princeton, Oxford, and Duke, to the US Department of State, to 17 Nobel prize winners and hundreds of prominent academics.

Even more recently, the European Parliament voted to launch Article 7 procedures against Hungary due to what Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have described as “serious deterioration of rule of law and democracy” in the country. The “Lex CEU” is one of the EP’s chief concerns regarding the Orbán government.

Protesters gathered in front of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (Photo: Huffington Post/ Dora Papp)

Protesters gathered in front of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (Photo: Huffington Post/ Dora Papp)

CEU Reaction 

In a statement, Central European University reacted to the demonstration, writing that

Yesterday several thousands of people marched in defense of academic freedom and free universities in the streets of Budapest, and parallel demonstrations were held in Hungarian cities including Szeged, as well as Cambridge, Barcelona, and other cities. CEU is deeply touched by the support.

The university also quoted from CEU research fellow Mate Lengyel’s speech at yesterday’s demonstration. Addressing the crowd, Lengyel said that

I’m proud to belong to the (research) community, and I’m grateful to the Nobel Prize winners who answer my emails within five minutes asking where they can sign a petition with hundreds of our colleagues; to Laszlo Lovasz, head of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; and to the countless Hungarian academics, professors, and students, scientific organizations and schools that have supported CEU; to colleagues working at other Hungarian research institutes whom I ran into at the demonstrations in the past two weeks, who said it’s the first time they’ve participated in a demonstration, because enough is enough, and in any case, to everyone who stood up for making this country a better place…That alone makes it worth being here, and living here. And if it’s this good, we’re staying.

Government Responses

Reacting to yesterday’s protest, Fidesz once again placed the blame at the feet of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. In an attempt to shift the discussion away from ‘Lex CEU’ and the controversial NGO bill currently before parliament, the party claimed that “the network of [US billionaire George] Soros is using all available means to put Hungary’s immigration policy under pressure.”

Further, the statement claimed that recent protests, in which tens of thousands of people have participated, have been staged by “organisations financed by Soros.”

Doubling down on this line, on Monday morning Fidesz parliamentary group leader Lajos Kósa told state media channel M1 on Monday morning that “Organisations and activists financed by Soros stage these protests.” Kósa also echoed claims about Soros’ supposed plan to inundate Europe with migrants, despite the fact that yesterday’s protest was not focused on Hungary’s migration policies.

Discussing the Sunday-night demonstration, Kósa said that “Hungary is a democratic country with a freedom of speech and assembly, and anyone can stage a demonstration… even if they do so for an unreasonable cause.”

Budapest, 2017. május 22. Szijjártó Péter külgazdasági és külügyminiszter sajtótájékoztatót tart 2017. május 22-én Egyedül a magyar határkerítés nyújt megbízható védelmet az illegális bevándorlással szemben címmel a külügyminisztériumban. MTI Fotó: Szigetváry Zsolt

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó at a press conference on May 22, 2017 (Photo: MTI- Zsolt Szigetváry) 

Despite US Embassy Statements, Hungarian Government Claims CEU Deal Possible

In a statement, the Hungarian Foreign ministry claimed that the US government could negotiate an agreement with the Hungarian government on CEU.

The stipulation in the controversial “Lex CEU” that Hungary sign an agreement directly with the US government goes against US law; in America, higher education is handled by the individual states, a legal reality reflected in the fact that CEU is accredited by the state of New York, not by the US government as a whole.

Despite this fact, both ministry spokesman Tamás Menczer and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó have claimed that an “intergovernmental agreement” would be possible, since supposedly “three such” agreements have already been signed between the two countries, in 1977, 1998, and 2007.

In reality, however, not one of these agreements (one of which was signed with the Communist People’s Republic of Hungary), deals directly with a particular university or college.

Szijjártó’s claims that the US has “not responded for political reasons” to the Hungarian government’s calls to name a negotiator fly in the face of statements by both the US State Department and the US Embassy in Budapest.

Since the government’s surprise passage of the “Lex CEU,” the US Embassy in Budapest and the State department as a whole have been openly supportive of Central European University, with Department spokesman Mark Toner telling a press conference last month that the US government is “very concerned” about the legislation.

Via MTI, index.hu, Hungary Matters, 24.hu, and pestisracok.hu

Images via MTI and the Huffington Post

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