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This is where Ignatieff comes in. By going to Brussels to mobilise support as he did, there is a just a whiff of suspicion that the liberals used him as a weapon against Fidesz, knowing that any suggestion that a university was being threatened with closure would be seen as rather disturbing by the EPP and thereby make life difficult for Fidesz. This did, in fact, happen. The CEU-Fidesz connection can also be placed in the Left’s preparations for the 2019 European elections. Both the liberals and the socialist vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, have made statements that can be read this way. In that respect, the CEU came to be deployed instrumentally in European party politics. Did Ignatieff know this? Hard to know. But obviously he did not object.

Whatever the case, at some stage in 2017 seemingly, the CEU decided to go for the exit option and leave Budapest, unless the Hungarian government conceded. There was never any chance of this once the matter had become political and had become a conflict between Ignatieff and the Fidesz government. The exit option was Vienna, where the CEU purchased the empty Otto Wagner Hospital early in 2018, but the negotiations to this end must have begun well before that.

Legally, as noted, the CEU is two universities, one American and one Hungarian. The Hungarian part of the CEU — known by its Hungarian name of Közép-Európai Egyetem — will stay in Budapest, and offer Hungarian diplomas, but the American part of the CEU will leave Budapest and its diplomas will be awarded in Vienna. Indeed, the CEU Board formally announced this at the end of October.

Furthermore, a minor but revealing curiosity can be seen in the story, but one has to look carefully. If the CEU really was as certain of its legal position as it claimed to be, why did it never appeal against the education law to the Hungarian Constitutional Court? It is not unreasonable to conclude that the CEU understood that its legal position was not as stable as it claimed and blamed the Hungarian government. It will be interesting to see if the CEU encounters any legal problems in Austria. (A small footnote here, one of the governing parties in Austria is the right-wing FPÖ and one of its spokesmen has already declared that as far as he’s concerned, the CEU is something they could do without.)

The position of the Hungarian government was made very clear by a senior minister, to the effect that the government would not accept an ultimatum, that the CEU-Hungary would, of course, stay in Budapest, but the CEU-US had not complied with the legislation in force. The US campus of the CEU, so say the Hungarian media and the minister, consists of a small house. Not much of a campus, one might be tempted to add. So Vienna it is. And the CEU-US, as a third country institution, cannot participate in EU-funded research programmes, even while the CEU-Hungary has done quite well in this area. In effect, the CEU has thrown in the towel.

Looking at the CEU saga from a detached perspective, a number of lessons emerge. First, if you are going to pick a fight, make sure that you are, at best, evenly matched. A university can never win against a sovereign state; a few minutes with Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War would have made this self-evident. Second, if you are a private university, stay out of the politics of the country of location. By all means establish friendly relations with the political elite, but don’t find yourself in a position where you come to be seen as a part of the surrogate opposition, as the CEU came to be.
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