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2018 Schuman Lecture: Michael Ignatieff’s vision for Hungary, Europe and Open Societies

If you missed the Schumann Lecture at 7th May, worry not! Here is a summary of and commentary on Michael Ignatieff’s lecture on Open Society’s New Enemies and the Future of Europe, organised by Studium Generale. Why does the EU see several self-declared illiberal governments rise among its members? Are these counter-conservative autocrats here to stay? How will they change Europe? These are the questions Ignatieff gave his thoughts on to a keen and appreciative audience, which included Maastricht’s mayor, on Monday night.

These questions are immediately pertinent to Ignatieff’s personal life, too. Ignatieff is a former Canadian politician- he has been the leader of Canadian Liberal Party- and has become the director of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. As Chief of this prestigious university, Ignatieff represents a stubborn liberal thorn in the side of Hungary’s recently re-elected President Viktor Orbàn. The two have publicly locked horns, as the university has come under pressure from the government attempting to pass a law that would effectively shut it down. Not least, because CEU was founded by Orbàn’s political arch-nemesis and philanthropist George Soros. Thus, CEU moved into Hungary’s political opposition. The opposition is precisely what makes an Open Society, Ignatieff explained on Monday, marking the subject of his talk. Cultural and academic institutions should function as pivotal counter-majoritarian societal actors who constructively criticise the status quo, offering alternative solutions to the problems that the state faces. All in all, democracy aims to represent not only the majority but the plurality of diverse group that make up society. The lecturer most likely would support progressive and liberal centrists such as Emmanuel Macron or Justine Trudeau, who pick ideas from both the Left and the Right political spectrums and are able to bring people together. They promote a more coordinated refugee and asylum system of distribution, incentives for businesses, disruptive investment, renewable energy, environment-friendly programs, measures against climate change and more funds for education. As politicians, so far they enjoy public support as they convey a unifying message. Ignatieff addresses himself and the audience: How can illiberal regimes reconcile political control economic growth, innovation and technological progress? Will they succeed? Time will tell us.  Universities, in the Professor’s view, should serve both society and the institutions as the epicentre of the knowledge and creative process by boosting today’s knowledge economy, although (unfortunately”) they often fail to offer a truly open and non-biased debate. A task that CEU still exercises.

The Central European University has been established in 1991 by George Soros, who invested 880 million USD, making it one of the wealthiest ones in Europe and the leading institution in central and eastern Europe. 

Open Society is originally a term coined by the German philosopher Karl Popper in 1947 and was used to describe non-totalitarian, capitalist societies during the Cold War. Ignatieff pointed out that they are mainly characterised by the position of the opposition. Political adversaries constantly scrutinise the governments’ actions to ensure the best-possible compromise and come to satisfactory results for the entire population. Ignatieff argues this has proven to ensure democracy’s longevity and relative stability. In contrast, a totalitarian society like the Soviet Union fails to utilise the opposition’s function, which will inevitably let the pressure build up until the lid pops of like it did in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Moreover, Ignatieff rightly points out that democracy is not in practice the most appealing political system nowadays, because “it is deliberative, it does not deliver quickly, leading to impasse and slow decisions”.

Ignatieff detects a counter-conservative trend happening in Hungary. The West assumed that those former Soviet Union republics such as Poland or Hungary sooner or later would become Open Societies after 1990, converting to political liberalism and market economies. However, Ignatieff demonstrated that they did not. Instead, the shock of 9/11, the early 21st century EU membership, the 2008 financial crisis, the ongoing global terrorism and refugee crisis have caused them to take a different path. People have asked themselves: Who is going to protect me now? The answer is the nation, the ‘last resort’ in times of insecurity and fear. These countries have undeniably undergone sudden and dramatic changes. Disillusionment with Western promises of prosperity, centred on democracy and capitalism, has produced regimes that are as much anti-Western as they are anti-communist, and as anti-liberal as they are only reluctantly European. Political oppositions within Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and also Russia are threatened to the point of defeat and humiliation. In the recent Hungarian elections, the leader of the Fidesz party Viktor Orban has secured more than 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly, grating for himself supermajority which enables his government to approve laws and bills without any judicial review procedure. But still, governments like that of Hungary are far from totalitarianism. No, it is much more perfidious than that. Hungary, to stick with one example, is still an Open Society. Paradoxically, open societies represent stabilising factors for these illiberal regimes. In tracing the traits of illiberalism in relation to open societies, Ignatieff mentions the work by Albert Hirschman “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”, considered by the Professor a centrepiece for students like us. In Hungary for instance, people can ‘exit’, i.e. the ones who vehemently disagree with the ruling party may leave or move their business abroad. There is no secret police that silences dissenting voices. To a degree, the opposition can still voice their critiques openly. The problem is that no one listens. “You can speak, but you can’t be heard”, as Ignatieff laments. Orbàn presents himself as a man who gives his all to the nation. He demands loyalty to the nation, not the state. The result is a kind of self-censorship, where society chooses not to hear the opposition as they are discredited as traitors of sorts and “enemies of the Hungarian people”. But the opposition, while not supporting power holders, still serve the nation, but through a process of falsification and scrutiny. It is the opposition’s constant dissatisfaction with the status quo that makes governments respond to and accommodate demands they might not consider on their own.

This is the dilemma of Open Societies. Precisely because they tolerate illiberalism, illiberal actors are free to subvert the idea. Ignatieff shows convincingly that currently the EU is helpless in the face of this. What found much head-nodding and raised eyebrows within the audience, was his take on the refugee distribution quota. Within this chaotic period in the last tears, we witnessed the “systematic confiscation of generosity by the people”. In Italy, for instance, the populist leader of the far-right Lega often blames the leftist for being “buonisti” (too kind). The debate around immigration has dishonest since the spread common belief was refuges were temporary workers, and soon would be gone. Public opinion has shifted to polarised extremes and racism emerged. The chief reason that people are racist is that they never talked about it, they were never asked nor had the chance to engage in an open discussion. It is to be remembered that, after all, “Societies are not hotels, they are places”. I agree. No matter where you were born, you’ll always be attached to your land, what has been named “imagined community of people” by scholars. Nevertheless, people who tried to offer the newcomers help were said to put strangers ahead of themselves, betraying their motherland. “By forcing Hungary or Poland to take in a (very little) number of refugees, the EU has given those autocrats a political card they play relentlessly”, he states soberly. Instead of trying to force these dissenting member states back into consensus, the EU should let the democratic forces of Open Society play out, Ignatieff argues. Practically speaking, the EU is powerless in countering these governments and cannot question the way its funds are allocated, as it lacks the democratic legitimacy given by the people and would be accused of infringing national sovereignty. Should the principle of conditional aid be implemented at the in the EU Cohesion Policy? As the Head MEP of the Liberals Guy Verhofstadt says, “The European money should only go to countries that respect European values”, one of them being a liberal democracy. EU is “walking backwards into a future it does not want”. Have the central and eastern EU countries progressive reforms for personal freedoms since the collapse of Communism? The future seems brighter, but the “pressure that calls for change will not come from Brussels, but from the streets”. He sees civil society, and specifically the young generation, as the essential factor that will eventually cause a change in direction for former Soviet Union countries. Because when Poland and Hungary stay Open Societies in principle, the natural allergic reaction to authoritarianism will spring up – at some point. However, Ignatieff gave a little hint, as to how decision-makers could accelerate this development.

But it is clear that Ignatieff wants to see this process happen soon. He stands for liberalism in its purest form. While openly normative in his goals and rhetoric, he objectively applies liberal standards to all political and moral questions, fair and square. Not only was he based and sharp on the refugee issue. He also analysed sharply the dynamics of globalisation, showing a great understanding of, and sympathy for, those who see their identity questioned and their communities threatened by the decisions of financial and political elites. No, Ignatieff is not a fervent supporter of the EU. But he is a liberal that supports the European project in both word and action. His university’s and personal struggle in Hungary give meaning to the theories he presented on Monday. Being an eloquent, humoristic and down-to-earth speaker, he easily captivated the large audience and received enthusiastic applause. He recalled that Maastricht University was the first to jump to support CEU back when it first came under attack in 2014. Students and teachers of Maastricht should, therefore, remember the political battles fought by Ignatieff and civil society in Eastern Europe to keep liberalism, the key idea of Europe, alive and authoritarianism at bay.

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