It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”
Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.
It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.
The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”
A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:
The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.
The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.
The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.
The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.
The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.
The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.
The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.
The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.
An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.
This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.
Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”
If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.