The threat by the Hungarian government to close down the Central European University (CEU), founded by Hungarian-born financier George Soros, has mobilized locals and foreigners alike. In an “in depth assessment,” the EU found that a recent education law was not compatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the union is taking legal action against Budapest.

The government’s higher-education law, which is widely believed to target the existence of the CEU, was passed in the Hungarian parliament in early April without any debate. Before the move, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán accused the CEU of “cheating,” making clear that the case was political.

Balázs Jarábik
Jarábik was a nonresident scholar focusing on Eastern and Central Europe with particular focus on Ukraine.
More >

Reactions to the law have been similarly emotional. The middle class in Hungary and abroad has woken up. The fight for the university has become a new battleground for liberal democracy in the Western press. The Western instinct is to punish Orbán, a self-declared illiberal champion. Some believe that Hungary should face EU sanctions.

While the West is right to be outraged, it needs to respond cleverly, lest it inadvertently help Orbán. The case of the CEU marks the launch of the election season in Hungary: a parliamentary vote is due to be held in spring 2018. Shortly before the attack on the university, the far-right Jobbik party (believed to be backed by the oligarch Lajos Simicska, a former Fidesz financier whose friendship with Orbán came to an abrupt end in 2015) started a billboard campaign with the slogan “You work, they steal.” Jobbik, which is attempting to move toward the mainstream, is the only serious challenger to the governing right-wing Fidesz party for Hungary’s majority of nationally minded voters.

By taking the CEU—the crown jewel of the Soros institutions—hostage in the upcoming election, Fidesz is trying to place the far Right in the same camp as Hungary’s Socialist and liberal parties. The stakes are high: for Fidesz, the election is about survival. Although Orbán leads the polls, as many as 38 percent of Hungarians are undecided.

The emotional wave of international condemnations is likely to be part of the ruling party’s calculus. Fidesz aims to paint what it sees as the liberal order rigged against the Hungarian government and demonstrate that Fidesz is still the only party that can protect the country. Although the CEU enjoys the solidarity of the entire Hungarian academic and educational scene, Fidesz assumes that the majority of Hungarians will choose the government over the EU if pushed.

Backtracking on the CEU would not be a problem for Fidesz, as the government has emphasized since the beginning of the case that it does not intend to close the university. Yet blaming Soros has become trendy in Fidesz’s ranks. After a failed referendum on immigration quotas in October 2016 and against the backdrop of the EU’s high popularity, the ruling party needs a reliable external enemy against which it can protect national interests to mobilize voters. This development suggests that Fidesz is running out of ideas and may feel vulnerable before the election.

Thus, the West should consider fine-tuning its response without helping the ruling party achieve its goals. This has to begin by not overstating the case against Orbán. The new legislation does not necessarily close down the CEU, although it makes the university’s existence difficult, as it places it fully under Hungarian jurisdiction. Although the law may violate the Hungarian constitution, Budapest is already firing back accusations of bias, arguing that the CEU is misleading public opinion.

Even if the West accepts that Orbán is beyond change, supporting a democratic transition is not that easy. The weakness of the Hungarian opposition is a key obstacle. Its emphasis on corruption may seem appropriate but is unlikely to be sufficient to unseat the government. Against Budapest’s challenges to the Western liberal order, domestic corruption cases have not been a game changer. Fidesz’s efforts to recapture the state from what it calls the interests of “unregulated” global financial capital have been a national mission.

Although the opposition is now upbeat amid the ongoing festive protest mood in the capital, ad hoc coalitions that support anyone but Orbán hardly guarantee a serious reform agenda. Only a viable political vision, which the opposition does not possess, would make a difference.

Given that relations with the EU and the role of the state are at the heart of Hungary’s politics, the opposition can challenge Orbán on how the state is managed. An inclusive, understanding, and merit-based (that is, European) approach may be the answer. To win, the opposition needs to embrace the importance of national interests and engage with Fidesz’s massive voter base, instead of dreaming that the guarantee of Western support alone will make a difference, as in the 1990s.

The temptation to punish Orbán is big, but aiding dialogue to solve the dispute seems a better solution. After Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Brussels has the chance to reaffirm itself as a consensus builder rather than a polarizing behemoth. After all, keeping the CEU in Hungary and avoiding the emergence of a pariah state in the EU should be a common objective.