Authoritarianism in Central Europe

TIME: 13:00 – 14:00, 30th May 2017

VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, 26th Floor
Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP


Dr William O’Reilly
Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, Cambridge University

Christian Davies
Guardian Contributor from Poland

CHAIR: Dr. Andrew Foxall

Dr William O’Reilly: [Missing start] … introduce an amendment to Hungary’s higher education law in the Hungarian Parliament. Now this was treated at that time as a matter of national emergency, with the measure passed within one week of its introduction to parliament. Despite an international storm of protest by university presidents, by twenty-four Nobel laureates, politicians worldwide, not least also eighty thousand Hungarians who took to the streets to protest the matter, the law was signed within a number of days by Hungarian President János Áder. Now the law, this law, the Lex CEU as the press now calls it, makes no mention of the CEU at all. It stipulates only that a university, accredited in a non-European country that belongs to the OECD, has to operate a full campus in its place of origin, in order to be able to award degrees within the Republic of Hungary. Only one such institution fits the bill of this law, and that’s the CEU which has a charter from the state of New York, but does not teaching or research in the United States. The law itself also set an impossibly tight deadline for establishing an American campus – that should be before the end of September next year – ensuring that the CEU would in effect no longer be able to accept new students by the beginning of the next calendar year.

So this crackdown on a university is, I think it’s fair to say, only the latest addition to an increasingly sophisticated repertoire of right-wing populism that’s being promoted by Prime Minister Orban – a long-time supporter of anti-liberal government, Viktor Orban is waging a larger and some see it cultural war, and I think that’s fair, against liberal values as well as driving the attempt to bring about the end to any independent institution that remains in Hungary, taking it under his control. Both the European Parliament and the United States State Department in the last weeks and months, called for the suspension of this Lex CEU, but it’s not clear that even they can stop him. So more than any other European country I feel, since 2010, Hungary has moved in an ever more authoritarian direction. Since that year – 2010 – Prime Minister Orban has written a new constitution, has enfeebled the judiciary, has put much of the news media under the control of government-friendly oligarchs, and also created a system of crony capitalism, in which economic success depends increasingly on connections to his Fidesz party. He’s also taken an extremely hard line against refugees, as we all know, building a fence with Serbia and having and running a series of government-sponsored campaigns that portray asylum seekers as illegal migrants, posing a threat to the nation’s Christian-European identity. Yet we might have thought that the countries perhaps even more endangered by Prime Minister Orban’s drastic reductions in education budgets at all levels, than it is by this attempt to close the Central European University. Since 2010 the number of university students in Hungary has been declining rapidly, and meanwhile the age of which students can now legally leave school has been lowered under his government from eighteen to sixteen.

So this is all part of his self-professed turn to ‘illiberalism’, the term he uses to describe his own system of government. Prime Minister Orban has also put forward the notion of a ‘work-based state’, and in practice this has meant public work programmes, including the building of the fence with Serbia, which has had a special impact on the lives of Roma and others in the country, that most critics I think outside the country and some within, view as highly exploitative, and all of this is an attempt to create a workforce primarily of manual labourers. Fidesz, the political party, has of course for years tried to take control of the country’s institutions of higher education, and now powerful chancellors appointed by the party to universities – in particular we might single out Kaposvár, Debrecen and also in Ayeb (?) – have tried to shape what is taught. And from 2010, too, a new highly nationalist curriculum has been introduced at all school levels. Within the midst of these changes the Central European University was one island of independence and critical thought, an institution that had been established for graduate study in 1991, and which today has 1,440 students from 120 countries worldwide, and a distinguished faculty from around the world too. Since the early 2000s, but particularly since 2010, Fidesz politicians have done little to hide the real motivation for what is now the Lex CEU. The Central European University’s founder had, for many years, been promoting the values of an open society – of liberty and of tolerance and the rule of law. But government spokespeople have since that time only ever referred to the university as the Soros University. He, Soros, does not control the university from behind the scenes; he, Soros, has however sponsored NGOs, has defended human rights, Roma rights, and fighting corruption within Hungary proper.

So just to give a flavour of these changes, even a few weeks before the amendment to the Higher Education Act was introduced, Mária Schmidt, a Hungarian historian close to the government, attacked in a newspaper article the CEU for teaching gender studies, and a pro-government newspaper – again a few weeks before this Act was introduced – charged the CEU with firing faculty simply because they were Hungarians. The government’s news machine also tied Central European University, a university again with students today from one hundred and twenty countries, to migration, which is then inevitably linked to the threat of terrorism. In early 2017, Szilárd Németh, Vice President of the ruling Fidesz party, threatened publicly that the state would use quote ‘all the tools at its disposal’ unquote to quote ‘sweep out the NGOs funded by George Soros’. According to Németh, they, these NGOs, quote ‘serve global capitalists and black political correctness over national governments’ unquote. During the parliamentary debate itself introducing this amendment, Minister for Human Resources Zoltán Balog, said that the international protests, which arose in response to this new Act, showed only quote ‘the power of Soros’s network’, that he had quote ‘begun a nationwide and worldwide smear campaign’ against Hungary.

So all of these and many, many more examples I think give a sense, and perhaps a sense of the sinister attack on civil society, which the government has introduced and which have reached an apogee in this new law. As well as that, a new piece of legislation introduced requires all NGOs in the country to signal whether they receive foreign funding. One government representative explained it in the following way, highlighting this language I think: quote ‘it’s not a bad thing if there’s a little star placed by the names of the organisations of people who are supported by George Soros’ unquote. Crucially, the European Union has done little so far to rein in the Hungarian government. Viktor Orban continues to be shielded from effective pressure from Brussels, because in large part he’s a member of the European People’s Party. Having a large majority has been of supreme importance to the EPP, and although he’s been rebuked mildly, the European People’s Party has always looked the other way. Prime Minster Orban, mirroring President Trump’s anti-refugee stance, is in many ways making a bid I think to become the leader of Europe’s centre-right as a whole. At an EPP speech in Malta in March, he promoted his vision of what should be a future Christian-national Europe. So the Orban attack on the Central European University coincided with a domestic anti-EU campaign under the banner ‘Let’s Stop Brussels’. Officially, the campaign is a quote ‘national consultation’, with eight million citizens receiving a questionnaire with some rather curious leading questions. In brief, the questionnaire suggests that the European Union wants to impose higher taxes on Hungarians, and settle willy-nilly illegal migrants throughout the country.

But the irony is that funds from the European Union amount to 5.5% of GDP, and sixty percent of jobs in Hungary depend on the common, European Market. ‘Let’s Stop Brussels’ campaign, posters and canvassing material, appears throughout the country frequently, publicly in front of billboards, that explain for example ‘this hospital is being renovated with the help of the European Union’. And since 2010, immigration, those leaving the country, is larger problem than emigration, people coming in. Since 2010, Hungarian governmental statistics say that over half a million young people, largely under the age of twenty five, have left the country for life abroad. So at the European Commission in April, European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, presented a point-by-point refutation of the campaign’s false claims – his words, stating that Prime Minister Orban’s rhetoric was, amongst other things, clearly anti-Semitic. Now it was yesterday, the twenty-ninth of May, that the deadline for a Hungarian government response to the European Parliament’s request for clarification if not revocation of the Act was due, and yesterday the twenty-ninth of May came and passed without any response.

If we go back a little, the seventeenth of May, a majority in the European Parliament on that day voted for a resolution to repeal the Lex CEU – the CEU law. They also voted in favour of withdrawing the law about NGOs, and they voted in favour of suspending the rights of the Hungarian government inside the EU. But importantly, the leader of the EPP group, the German CSU politician Manfred Waber, decided to support Orban publicly in this Act. Perhaps pressure domestically in Germany, campaigning with Merkel, [inaudible] Schulz and others has led to this split loyalty. All of this, in the context of the fact that Hungary, in spite of the Prime Minister and Fidesz’s suggestions, is not a country of Eurosceptics. The growth of young liberals in particular in movements like the Momentum Society, which has emerged, is proof of this, if proof were indeed needed, and its great campaigning success in, within Budapest proper in blocking the Olympics Campaign, another crazy scheme that had come up.

And what about the Central European University? Well in Thursday of last week, the Austrian Foreign Ministry in a very public statement said that it would welcome the CEU to Vienna, to Graz, or to any city in the Republic. More offers have come from the Baltic states, from Slovenia, from Slovakia, from all around the region. If the CEU does move, and at the moment it is making contingency plans to do so – it’s believed that in September it will move parts of its campus to Vienna and will open a small office elsewhere to be announced next week I believe – if CEU does move even temporarily, it’s quite clear that it will be a real shame to all those who believe in liberal democratic ideals. For the first time in Europe since World War Two, a university will have been closed for political reasons.

So what can we do? What can we do at a variety of levels? Well I think pressure that we need to bring to bear in the European Union, is that the European Union requests, in line with the requests coming from CEU, that negotiations begin. The government has blocked any attempts to discuss these matters, is refusing to send any representatives or to meet on neutral ground to discuss these matters…and that in order that negotiations take place, we must [inaudible] to our European representatives that the Lex CEU is temporarily suspended at the very least while negotiations take place. I think the second point for the European Union is that through its various organs, whether it be Parliament, Commission or the various parties, and in particular the European People’s Party, exempts pressure on Prime Minister Orban and Fidesz, to allow for an independent international university, like Central European University, to operate freely and fairly and in conformity with former regulations as the sanction of students, hiring of faculty, and the development of curricula, to reject all interference. And, thirdly, to request that the European Union’s support – protection – for the Central Europe Union, if it is to stay, and protection for Central European University if it is forced to leave.

What should we ask the UK government to do? Well at this crucial time, during an election campaign, perhaps it’s important to say that while a series of delegations from the British Academy, Royal Society, from British nationals and academics working within Central European University, have all made efforts to have representation registered both at the British Embassy in Budapest and here at government. The European governmental, although – excuse me, the British governmental response has been that the British government engages only in ‘private conversations’, quote, with Hungary, and that they would not give any details – and have given no details – on the position of what they are in fact representing to the Hungarian government. The one statement that was issued was from the office of the Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, to note that he was ‘aware of protests’. Interestingly the same day that that statement was made, and at the same day too that a delegation of British academics visited the embassy in Budapest, Minister David Davis – the Brexit Minister – was in Budapest negotiating trade deals with the Orban government. So what we must ask government here, is can Her Majesty’s government report any progress in the first instance, in the so-called ‘private conversations’ with Prime Minister Orban’s government about Lex CEU, and can the lack of any public criticism in the EU – in the UK – of the Lex CEU and other rights infringements in Hungary, be linked to a Brexit foreign policy of trade with the country whatever the rights record?

And finally, what should we in the wider public – what should we as academics, and as people interested in these matters do? Well I think first and foremost keep up the pressure keep up support, secondly convey that although this is a Hungarian affair, this is only one aspect of the matter, and that basically forms, it forms part and parcel of a larger attack on the freedom of education and learning, for which other more extreme cases to date we have in Turkey, in Russia, and perhaps even parts of the United States.

Critically, to avoid using the idea of a ‘Soros University’ – this is purely demagogic and not reflecting the operation and independence of the [Central European] University at all, and it is a slight of very suspect intent. And that means I think finally that we all should as much as individual support as we can offer provide that, but we should also recognise that pressure should be put in every way on our politicians local, national and European, to try and have these matters registered and not forgotten. This is, as I say again, the first time since 1945 that a European university will have been closed by a government.

Thank you very much.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you William, an awful lot of detail for us there to think about. Christian, over to you.

Christian Davies: Thank you so much. I’m going to focus on one issue in Poland, I think controversially over the past couple of years, namely that of the rule of law and to a certain degree the dispute between the Polish government and the European Commission, and other bodies. I will give you some detail because on such matters detail is extremely important, otherwise we get lost in a cloud of rhetoric and mutual accusations. So I’m going to go through three common, misconceptions about this, about this issue, as a lot of people know the European Commission is still considering whether to bring…to initiate the sanctions procedure to go further down the sanctions procedure track which may end up with the European Council voting to impose certain financial penalties and restrictions on voting rights in Poland.

I want to go through some of the detail where this case arose. The first misconception is that the rule of law issue in Poland is an internal political dispute between political parties in which there are similar faults on both sides, and that there is a lot of blame to go around. The controversy really, or rather, the Law and Justice’s approach to the Constitutional Court was a response to an attempt by the previous government which was a civic platform government which had been lead until 2014 by Donald Tusk, to appoint five judges to the constitutional tribunal which is the body which rules on the constitutionality of government actions and various other state bodies. The way it works in Poland is the Parliament nominates judges for the court, and the President swears those judges in. Civic platform, in the tail-end of its time in government nominated five Justices. Three of those were approved, in terms of their constitutionality by the Constitutional Court, and two of them were struck down as being unconstitutional. Civic platform then withdrew the two unconstitutional appointments, but carried on with the three that were regarded as constitutional.

When Law and Justice came into power, first of all it came in two stages – one was the election of President Andrjez Duda in mid-2015, and then Law and Justice won a leading role in the – they didn’t get a majority because it’s a pre-electoral coalition one. Law and Justice – the Law and Justice President Andrjez Duda refused to swear in the three constitutionally appointed Justices, and instead swore in five Justices that were nominated by the Law and Justice-led Parliament. Three of those were regarded by the Constitutional Court as Constitutional and two not. Now that sounds like a lot of detail, but essentially Civic Platform nominated five judges, some were constitutional, some were not, and when the Constitutional Court ruled that some of them were unconstitutional, they withdrew. When Law and Justice came in, not only did the President unconstitutionally try to approve judges who had been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional tribunal – I’m sorry this is slightly difficult – but he proceeded then to also appoint those who had been unconstitutionally approved. That’s the difference between a government respecting a decision made by the Constitutional Court and not. In one case, the judges were ruled to have been illegally appointed, the government no longer pursued their appointment, and in the case of Law and Justice they did anyway. That is a qualitative difference.

Now, this illegal appointment of certain judges to the Constitutional Court then caused controversy on the Court itself, because the Presidents of the Court refused to allow those illegally appointed judges to participate. This led to the Law and Justice-led Parliament to then try and reform the means by which the constitutional tribunal operates. They try to do this in numerous different ways. The main one was to reform it in such a way that those judges that were appointed by Law and Justice – some of them legally and some of them not legally – would have blocking vote on the court. In the sense – in effect, it would mean that they would have the power to paralyse the court’s decisions.

Another way was to, was to demand that the court would only consider its cases in a chronological order, in other words to take its backlog from its oldest case first and work that way. But because there is a backlog going over many, many years, possibly over a decade, this would have effectively meant that the Constitutional Court would no longer be able to rule on the constitutionality of decisions made by the government because it would be focused on cases that were years and years old.

They key point is that when the government tried to reform the Constitutional Court, the Constitutional Court ruled that reform of itself unconstitutional. When the constitutional tribunal in Poland makes a ruling, it only has legal effect when it’s printed. Now the printers are controlled by the government. This is actually just a technicality that no one had ever really thought of before, it just happened to be a matter of convenience that the printers were controlled by the government. But what the government did is it decided that the Constitutional Court’s decision striking down the government’s reform of the Constitutional Court was invalid and it refused to print the ruling. By refusing to print the ruling, that ruling technically had no legal force. In other words, through its control – literally – of the printing machines, the government took upon itself the right to decided when a Constitutional Court decision is valid or not, whether it has legal force or not. That means the government taking upon itself the power to either be held accountable by the rule of law or not. The basic decision to arbitrarily decide when it’s subject to the rule of law or not is a fundamental breach which is in my mind, and in the eyes of many other people, non-negotiable. It’s nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with opposition parties, it’s the arbitrary decision of whether to be bound by the Constitutional Court or not. Now it was over these disputes that the European Commission intervened.

The problem was at that time, the Polish legal system flows in many ways from the decision of the most superior courts – not just the Supreme Court, but the Constitutional Court. The government acted as if its decision not to print the ruling was legal, but other courts interpreted it differently. In other words you had two parallel legal systems, one with some local authorities deciding that what the court had printed – sorry, had not printed – was legal, and some saying it was not. So you had the construction of parallel legal systems which has caused legal chaos in Poland ever since. But until December 2016, those not appointed by Law and Justice still had a majority on the court. But this changed when the President of the court’s term expired. Now what normally happens when the President of the court’s term expires, the Justices on the court meet, and they appoint a new Justice. But what happened was that on the day that they were supposed to meet, those judges illegally appointed by Law and Justice all took sick leave on the same day. They were all ill on the same day, 3 or 4 of them had doctors notes and apparently they all had been struck down maybe by some bacteria, I don’t know. That meant that they were not able to appoint a new President of the court. So the Law and Justice Parliament responded by taking it upon itself to pass a law which was unconstitutional to give the President an unconstitutional ability to appoint the new President himself. He then appointed, as President of the court, one of the judges who had been taken sick on the day of the decision. She, upon assuming this temporary role, sent on indefinite leave the Deputy of the former President, which gave the government a majority on the Court by a majority of one.

So this is clear coordination between government-appointed judges and the government itself. Judges that were not legally appointed, ignoring legal judgements, imposing illegal judgements, coordinating with the government and the Executive, in such a way that the government now has control over the Constitutional Court.

Without a functioning oversight of the legality of the government’s actions you cannot say there is rule of law, as you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that the government has to be as subject to the rule of law as anything else. So I’m sorry if it’s slightly convoluted, but unfortunately these matters…that’s the nature of these matters.

The second misconception is that this is a political dispute between Poland and the EU. That somehow a politicised EU is trying to bully a sovereign Poland to do what it wants. The democratically elected Polish government signed up to several democratic core principles and consented to the mechanisms by which those mechanisms and actions are overseen.  That is a legal issue not just for the European Union but for the democratic state of Polish politics. This has the democratic legitimacy because this was consented to by democratically elected government. If anything, the Commission’s response, if it’s being governed by politics at all, it has been to be too lenient, because although certain procedures have been initiated in response to what happened to the disruption of the Polish Constitutional Court, they’ve been very infective. Now it’s a political question what the Commission should have done or not. But what in practice what it has done is send various letters of concern or warning and have received no response whatsoever; no concrete action has been taken in response to the Commission’s response, and as a result, the Constitutional Court no longer exists as a properly formed legal entity. So the Commission has lost, the European Union has already lost on that front.

First of all, it’s proper for it to have intervened, because all those instruments have been consented to. And secondly, if anything the European Commission has been too weak and has failed to stop what was happening.

One accusation that is made by the government against the Commission is that this is somehow linked to other political issues, such as migrant quotas. This has nothing to do with migrant quotas just in the same way it has nothing to do with state logging in the Bialowieza forest which is also a dispute which the European Commission has with the Polish government. These are separate issues. They have got nothing to do with each other.

And finally, whatever one’s views within Poland or outside of Poland on the proper balance of sovereignty and power between the European Union and the Polish Republic, this is actually fundamentally about the Polish government’s respect for the law of the Republic of Poland, which is the 1997 Constitution, drawn up in a democratically elected Parliament, put to a referendum and consented to by the Polish people.

So whatever your views on the European Union, this is about respect for the Polish Constitution. And this is ultimately for the Polish people to sort out. But this is an internal issue, and it’s precisely because it is an internal issue that it is such a concern for those who respect the rule of law in Poland.

And the third misconception is that this is somehow a battle between conservatives and liberals, that this is an attempt by the European Union and others, the Guardian included, that they are trying to impose some sort of political or social values on Poland. Anyone who knows Polish politics will know that the forces of liberalism in terms of deep hostility to the role of the church in public life, an overwhelming desire to have migrants from the Middle East and son on, and refugees, is not very strong. There is no very strong left-wing force in Polish politics partly because of its associations with communism but mainly because the main left wing party, the SLD, collapsed and Law and Justice benefitted from the left-wing party’s collapse because it’s the main welfare-ist party.

What you really have is a division in Poland between slightly more conservative and slightly less conservative centre-right parties. The thing that divides them is not political left-right issues that we might consider in Britain, or America, or elsewhere. It’s an attitude towards the basic legitimacy of the Third Republic and the constitution of 1997 which governs the rules of that republic. In other words it’s a dispute between people who believe in liberal democracy and those who don’t believe in liberal democracy. And this is not liberal democracy defined as devotion to cosmopolitan values or multiculturalism; it’s liberal democracy which is defined by devotion to the rule of law and the idea that the government is subjected to the rule of law like anyone else – this is the division. And anyone who in the West conceives it as Eurosceptics and Conservatives standing up for their values and being punished for standing up for those values, will get this very, very badly wrong. And the analogy I draw is that in the 70s and 80s during the Polish People’s Republic, it was the Western left that got Poland very wrong, because they saw what was happening in Poland through a particularly political prism. They saw that solidarity was supported by John Paul the second, Thatcher, Reagan and so on, and this made them ambivalent at least about solidarity. It made them get the big call on who was on the right side of democratic values in Poland at that time wrong, because they saw it through their own political prism. Now, the right in Britain and elsewhere are making the same mistake in the same direction – they are seeing the Eurosceptics and the people who want to defend their traditional values and so on being bullied by the European Union and various other  – what they regard as being – liberal entities. They are interpreting what is a fundamentally legal question in a political way and again they are getting it wrong from the opposite direction. Whereas the left got it wrong because of their at least tacit ambivalence over the Soviet Union, now the right is getting it wrong because of their hostility to the European Union.

I think a lot of people particularly on the right in Britain, because those are the people who have the most influence now, have got to wake up and look at the detail of what’s happening because they’re allowing their political views to have a very detrimental effect – it’s making them complicit to the destruction of the rule of law in a country that has always been friendly to us, and that is Israel.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you. An awful lot of food for thought between the two talks. I think quite distinct talks, but I think there are also a number of themes and threads that ran through both, certainly when one thinks about the importance of the rule of law, the sliding away from liberalism, manipulation of the constitution – at least to a degree in both countries. And this phrase that William used and Christian sort of echoed: this ‘imposition’ of outside values, or perceived imposition of outside values, I think if we look at a country that is not too far away from Poland, a country that is not too far away from Hungary, and we look for similar developments in Russia, then we might also think about government-friendly oligarchs in Russia, media crackdowns as you mentioned in Hungary, restrictions of citizens’ liberties, promotion of Christian values albeit a particular form of Christian values, opposition to liberalism viewed at least in some sense as the EU, undoubtedly increasing levels of anti-Semitism. So, I wonder if – well first, as my position as Chair I will ask the first question, an as I do please do think of questions of your own. But I wonder if developments in Russia somehow provide a template for developments we have seen in Central and Eastern Europe? Now in some sense of course, in Poland the government define themselves in opposition to Russia; in Hungary, Mr Orban has been quite happy to be photographed with President Putin, Marine Le Pen of France as well, one thinks of Robert Fico and [inaudible] in the Czech Republic, he has almost embraced the idea of being in an alliance with the Kremlin at least in some senses. So my question is I suppose to both of you, what role do outside actors play in the developments and in particular Russia?

Dr. William O’Reilly: I think a large part both in real terms and as models, I think in real terms one of the issues which has been most noticeable in domestic both financial and to a certain extent intellectual sort of move from Prime Minister Oran has been a shift towards Putin. The fact that since 2010, in particularly I’m thinking of one individual who stepped away from supporting Prime Minister Orban who had been his largest private donor and investor, and greatest supporter of the Fidesz Party from 2010 to 2011, a school friend in fact of the Prime Minister. He has publicly denounced this turn towards Russia and this turn towards Putin. But Putin has been terribly useful in extending a very low interest, almost a non-interest-charged loan for Hungary’s new nuclear power redevelopment. And that’s been critical really in creating employment, but also in helping the infrastructure of the country. So in practical real terms, this sense of connection seems to many people counter-intuitive in a society that is one generation from 1989 and the turn away from the idea of an east bloc rather than a central European identity. I think other models have obviously come to the fore, and this is perhaps again a generational shift – 25 and some years on from a transition we see an attempt to actually model independence on a strong power rather than on some sense of confederation, as the European model is now dismissed as. I think that means we look to strong models, Prime Minister Orban’s own insistence that his illiberal – his phrase – government is modelled on Russia, China, and a number of other states, is the notion that a core cultural must be protected, a core cultural value which is very involved in defining or maybe even inventing. And it’s one which I think is a worrying model not least in the relationship with President Trump. That’s not been as responsive from the United States as perhaps the Prime Minister had hoped, and that’s something to do with the fact that one Hungarian historian in the United States said that if the United States were to spend half an hour a year on Hungary, it would be quite lucky. President Trump isn’t really all that interested, that’s not what was expected, and that’s a disappointment.

Christian Davies: Poland is slightly distinct from the rest of the Central European Visegrád counties in the sense that I think the popular anti-Russian feeling is probably deeper and more widespread. But as we know, the way that Russia operates and the Russian propaganda operates, means you no longer have to declare your love for Russia or its model, for your actions to have some synthesis from a Russian perspective it’s enough for Poland to become detached, more and more isolated, and to define itself more and more against Berlin and Brussels. Although some kind of rhetorical or real alliance with Moscow may be the next logical step it doesn’t necessarily have to go that far for Russia’s interest to be, or to have been, helped. One important and interesting example is what has happened in the last couple years, has been the [inaudible] between Poland and Belarus. Belarus doesn’t have the same…doesn’t raise the same ominous feelings in Polish society. Now there may be god reasons for that because clearly since Ukraine there has been a shift in the wider European debate towards more prioritising on Belarussian statehood than Belarussian democracy and so on, but you can nonetheless see that underneath the protestations, which on behalf of the government which I think are generally truly meant, there is a particular senior minister in the government which is a more complicated story, but I won’t get into that.

Fine, you may be very Russophobic and say all kinds of things which show that you don’t like Russia, but if you repeat the kinds of things that Russia says about the decadence and cosmopolitanism of the West…if you isolate yourself politically from Brussels and Berlin then that’s going to help Russia. The other important thing is that at the core of this is this plane that was destroyed. One thing that’s always been very damaging for Poland fairly or unfairly is the perception in Western European countries that Poland is hot headed and paranoid about what’s happening in Russia, and somehow is always trying to drag western countries into some kind of confrontation. Now, very few sensible people given the available evidence believe that Russia is responsible for the attack. Certainly almost no one in the western European countries believe it. And given all the things – the dangerous things – that Russia really has done, for the government to focus so singularly on something that Russia almost certainly didn’t do, that has a very bad damage on our interests because unfortunately it exacerbates this prejudice about Poland that it is seeking confrontation and that it’s somehow paranoid. Now the Polish side of me says Russia is up to all kinds of different things, but to focus on perhaps the one thing they didn’t do is counter-productive. And secondly, if they really did mean the Russian government killed the Polish president and the whole army, that is clearly an act of war and they should take it to NATO and invoke Article 5. The fact that they don’t shows that they know it’s for internal consumption. If that’s not an act of war I don’t know what is, so they should take it to their allies if that’s what they believe.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: You’ve raised an interesting point. So often in discussions on developments in Central and Eastern Europe, there is a danger of allocating agency to Russia where it doesn’t have agency, and missing Russian agency where it does exist. I am quite open now to open the floor to questions if anybody has a question please raise your hand and introduce yourselves – and if you do represent a particular organisation. Brendan.

Professor Brendan Simms: Brendan Simms, President of the Henry Jackson Society. So my question in the first instance is for William but I would be interested din other views as well. You set out a series of requests that the UK government might have – I agree with all of them. How would we actually make that stake – is there any leverage that the UK now has? Obviously the European Union has it and won’t use it with the [inaudible] values. The UK is losing that to a certain extent through Brexit, though that could form a part of the Brexit negotiations. But is there some way that the UK government can actually [inaudible], because anything that one might do as it were at the university level would be simply be to retaliate against the kind of kind of Hungarians we would want to behold. I don’t think there’s anything that humble academics like us, you know, could do, in our private capacity. So I just wondered what you thought about that.

Dr. William O’Reilly: It’s, well thank you, it’s both a very good question and a very difficult one, as good questions usually are. Had the central European university been a polish-based university, one can imagine that it would’ve continued to play a large part potentially as part of Brexit negotiations about the rights of nationals in each other’s country. And about the protection of fair play and so on. But the number of – and I’m not saying a current strategy – but it would be a possibility that that is not the case here, the number of Hungarian nationals working in countries is relatively small, and vice versa. I think what we must do is recognise that this is not simply a domestic Hungarian matter. This is an international university as all universities are, by definition, and this is a centre of critical thought and learning. And the fact that any of our universities might at some stage face a similar challenge because they become sights of production of ideas, by definition and then that those ideas might in fact disagree with what the government is arguing, then that seems to me to undermine the very notion of what a university is, that these should be not safe zones, but places of real active debate, and real active challenge, and occasionally support. The reality is that while Eötvös may be the larger university, while others are older, while the Hungarian Academy is more prestigious than the Institute for Advanced Studies, most of the Hungarian universities have condemned this act, because they see it as something which they themselves have been living with.

I was on an appointments board twice last year, at CEU, and we were asked by applicants from other European…from other universities within Hungary, not to disclose that they had applied for positions in case they were not successful and then would find themselves dismissed for having engaged with this. There are public statements from colleagues across the university sector in Hungary discussing this matter. There are colleagues who have been dismissed from [inaudible], from for instance the History Department, for actually making public statements in favour of the Central European University. So this is something I think has an impact on all of us, and what we I think can do is make sure that this issue remains current, remains debated, remains very public, because no response has come as of yesterday’s deadline, it is highly unlikely now a response will come before the German elections I would suggest, but the tide may be turning with the election of Macron this is not an ideal outcome for supporting of this bloc particularly. In brief I would say we simply need to continue to make sure it is news, and discussed, and then see in what ways we can exert influence on politicians.

In terms of what can be done, focusing on the diplomatic level briefly. What’s clearly happened in the last year or so is that the British government has decided it’s going to turn a blind eye the rule of law issue in Poland. It’s been convenient for them because it’s been handled by the European Commission, they’ve been able to say well this is a Commission issue, we’re not going to get involved. The problem is that once this issue is now starting to move up to the European Council, Ministers are going to have to start taking a view. We have the first sign of that in the last couple of weeks, and Britain tried to characterise it as an internal democratic issue, but so is everything. Britain has a view on the constitutional referendum in Turkey, and the concerns about that. But it doesn’t have a view on the dismantling of Poland’s Constitutional Court. That’s not sustainable. I suspect they are going to continue to turn a blind eye to it simply because they’ve decided again wrongly in my view that some form of very strong bilateral relationship with Poland is going to pay dividends I the Brexit negotiations. Obviously Poland and Britain have many common interest, bilateral common interests, security, economic issues and stuff. But this putative British-Polish alliance, while there is a lot of flirtation going on I don’t see how it’s going to be consummated because there are some very fundamental differences. The most obvious ones are that although before Britain left the European Union Britain and Poland had a very obvious interest in being non-Euro members but being large countries kind of on the –slightly on the – peripheral of the European Union, though periphery is a sensitive world. But now Britain is living and Poland is staying. That’s a fundamental difference.

Secondly in the negotiations the aims for the outcome seem to me to be – to have – tension with one another, because Poland’s main hope is to get cash and secure as much – secure the rights for their citizens in Britain. Whereas Britain’s political priorities are to pay as little cash as possible and to reduce migration and the largest single group of people from the rest of the European Union are Poles. So how that’s going to play out I don’t know. All I know is that since this sort of warming up has happened there’s only been two main incidents. One has been that Poland has hoped to get Theresa May’s support for not renewing Donald Tusk’s term as the President of the European Council. That put Britain in a very difficult position and they ended up voting along with everybody else to renew his term. And the second is that Polish assistance along with France, agricultural, the agricultural bill being included in this so-called Brexit bill, in both cases when it came down to an actual matter of substance they were on two different sides. But the main risk partly for Britain but mainly for Poland, is that rightly or wrongly the conception that Poland is somehow being used by the British to divide the European countries in the upcoming negotiations, which…that may not be fair, that may not be their strategy and that may not be Poland’s. I’m pretty sure that Poland will – I hope – will stick with the rest of the pack for Poland’s sake.

But rightly or wrongly if this perception takes hold this will not only damage Britain’s – the trust between Britain and France and Germany who will obviously be the most powerful people in that negotiation, but it will also increase Poland’s democratic isolation, which is which is, pretty – given its position a few years ago – is pretty dramatic. So despite the mutual interest in a number of different areas I don’t really see how this apparent alliance will go and how it’s in the interest of either country.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you. I’m aware that we’ve just reached 2 o’clock but if there are any questions in the audience?

Q2: I’m from the Japanese Embassy based in London. My question is about what is the rival of Orban, Kaczyński. We can see a lot of nationalism and totalitarianism [inaudible] from both sides – what is the key driver of this?

Christian Davies: I can’t speak for Orban, Kaczyński I could sit here for three or four hours talking about where it came from. First of all, straightforward nationalism is never the, there is never a satisfactory answer. It’s essentially routed in the controversies around the transition, in 1989 and the early nineties in the Polish People’s Republic into a democratic system. And the dissatisfaction that numerous people in Polish society had with that transition. And they’re bound together – it’s not actually all people who lost out economically, there’s a lot of people in the Polish elite who believe it too, and Law and Justice is essentially, its supporters are bound by the idea that the existing constitutional order is not legitimate. That may be because they are very, they have certain social values which they don’t agree with, liberal values contained in the Polish constitution. It may be that they believe it was set up by people in the Polish elite who still had connections with the old communist system and so on.

Untangling what is a fair criticism, what is not a fair criticism of the transition would take all day, but the main theme that unites them is dissatisfaction with the current legal order and because they reject the legal order they don’t feel bound by it. In other words because they regard it as illegitimate, they have no motivation to even pretend to be abiding by the laws. The only reasons they pretend to abide by it is for domestic political reasons and international reasons in terms of the backlash they might get. but if you look at the intellectual development of a lot of their serious, there is a consistent strain which is either a misunderstanding or a hostility towards the idea that politics can be conducted with a neutral arbiter, it’s essentially a very communist idea that the law is political, and that there is no way of disentangling the law from politics; your enemy will use the law against you, and since he will do that you have the right and obligation to defend yourself.

So it’s a deep hostility and understanding to the very philosophical basis of liberal democracy and the rule of law, but where it comes from is a very, very long story which I’m afraid I can’t go into.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: William, any thoughts?

Dr. William O’Reilly: I don’t know, it’s a short answer but what I will say is it’s interesting to watch the political development of someone like Viktor Orban who was one of three original Soros ‘open society’ scholars in 1989, to receive funding to go to Oxford, to study. Incidentally one of the other two with him became Vice President of Central European University. So, to see the way in which the Fidesz Party has moved through the 1990s and into the early 200’s in particular to incorporate the ideology of the far-right, namely of the Jobbik party. And to win over a base of a party that affiliates itself with Iran, and with Russia, in terms of its model of government – although pushing a very Christian illiberal agenda – to incorporate that ideology of the far-right, he methodology of rule, the fetishisation of a particular view of the historical past, to incorporate ideas of anti-Semitism, of xenophobia, as mainstream political weapons, meant that by 2010 it’s possible to have a two thirds majority in parliament which allows them to then usher in a whole series of legislative and governmental reforms of the kind that we’re seeing now.

So it’s a party that has consumed opposition, with the result that Jobbik is now the largest opposition party never to have been in government. It’s hardly likely it will ever be in government because it no longer needs to exist, its ideology and whole political tent is covered in Fidesz, so what we see is a party that has supported and sought opportunistically I would argue success at every turn, and that extends to the enfranchisement of a large number of Hungarian – ethnic Hungarians – in Romania, a large number of people living in Transylvania.

Now as new voters of the Republic of Hungary are much indebted to the Prime Minister. But it’s also the case that there are many minor acts that look to soak up the discontent of people of a certain age – so, the re-introduction only recently of the old socialist habit of granting pensioners of  free pot of plants every month [laugh]. Little things actually make a difference, and it’s all those little things that mean together there is a real sense of loyalty that divides what’s perceived within much of Hungarian society, a clear separation of urban Budapest liberal life with the rest of the country. So what was once perhaps the division of certain parts of the capital, and the classic far-right north-east, Debrecen and the general area, that’s now a division that’s not so clear any more – support comes from all over the country, not just from the Buddha Hills but from other parts of the country too.

Dr. Andrew Foxall: Thank you. It falls to me now to say thank you to both of our speakers for their fascinating talks, heavy in detail, but as we know where the devil resides after all. So please join with me in thanking our speakers. Thank you.


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