Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes and Irish writer Colm Tóibín published an open letter to protest the Hungarian law that targets Central European University (CEU) which is considered one of the most prestigious universities in Central Europe. The letter now reached to around 700 signatories among them poets, writers, academics, teachers, and scientists. We talked to George Szirtes about the letter, his views on CEU law, refugee crisis, Brexit, and the worldwide rise of populism.
Could you please briefly share with us your perspective on CEU in terms of its importance for Hungary and Europe?
The CEU is more than an outstanding, internationally recognized and praised university. It is first and foremost an independent university so beyond the control of the state which is in effect the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán who has been shutting down or restricting independent agencies ever since he was elected in 2010. Secondly, it is a vital symbol at this stage of Orbán’s plan, because we already know that NGOs will follow. It is an even more important symbol in the European context in that if the Hungarian government succeeds in closing it down (by means of a new law specifically intended to close it) Europe will have to decide how to deal with a member nation whose entire direction of travel since 2010 has been counter to the principles of the European Union. If the EU does not act it is devalued and loses what coherence it still possesses. It is only to be whispered of course that George Soros, the founder of the CEU (who actually funded Orbán’s time at Oxford as he funded many young Hungarian students in the 1980s) and one of the sources of funding for many Hungarian NGOs happens to be Jewish, hence not a ‘proper Hungarian’ in the increasingly ethnicity based patriotism encouraged by Orbán.
You have started an open letter campaign with Colm Tóibín. Do you think the initiatives or protests such as this letter can have practical influence on the political decisions?
I have long been watching Hungary and writing about it in journals, in newspaper articles, and constantly on my blog and on Facebook where I post a great many things, not solely about Hungary, or Brexit or other politics but all kinds of miscellaneous matters, including drafts for poems and prose pieces. The open letter in question was originally posted by me on Facebook. At the end of the post, I asked if others would care to sign it. Surprisingly many came to sign and within two days we had 300 signatures. I then sent the letter to the President of the European Parliament, as also to my local members of both the European Parliament and of the UK Parliament. The letter remained available on Facebook but I copied to my blog where it would be constantly available. It should be noted that I did not ask any specific people or classes of people to sign but since I am a writer the majority of signatories were writers, including some very prominent ones, including, I am very glad to say, Colm Toibin, one of the finest novelists in the English language, but many other prominent ones too. Once we had 300 I sent the letter to The Guardian, but thanks to the journalist Danuta Kean, the letter turned into an inset in a larger article about Hungary. Then Al Jazeera followed, along with a number of international news agencies Our numbers grew from then on. Now there are over 700 signatures. The full list of names can be seen on my blog georgeszirtes.blogspot.com. As to whether the letter can exert any practical influence, I don’t think it could in itself, but it can – and has – become part of a much bigger effort by various channels, including universities, cultural organizations, professional bodies and the CEU itself, to which I also sent the letter. For the CEU it is, I hope, a source of encouragement. What I do think is remarkable is the power of Facebook in attracting such a large group of people in such a short time. I am enormously grateful to those who signed without being specifically invited to do so.
The world is passing through a democracy crisis. Do you think the law about CEU is only related to the nation’s political developments or is it also related to the changing world politics?
The lexCEU as it is now referred to is, in my view, primarily about Hungary and the creation of an autocratic closed society, but it is also part of a geological shift in politics over the world particularly since 1989. In strategic terms, Orbán’s Hungary has moved closer to Putin in its politics and the whole Visegrad Four is in danger of breaking away, or at least threatening to break away. Orbán has declared himself in favour of what he called ‘illiberal democracy’ and is an avowed admirer of Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey and Singapore. He claims to detect a world drift towards illiberal democracy and was hoping for more support from President Trump whom he saw, in the presidential campaign at least, as a man like himself. Orbán sees the world turning in his favour, and himself as a leader in that process, especially in the attitude to refugees who, he believes will further undermine the version of Europe he claims to defend, although, in practice it is he himself who undermines it in every public speech.
Writers, artists, and academia started to be more articulate about the political developments and daily politics. Do you think is there still an influential role that the public intellectual can play in response to authoritarianism?
Yes, of course I do, in that intellectuals are by definition intelligent, articulate and expert in specific fields. They are always a great danger to authoritarians and autocrats. But they need to address people outside their immediate sphere and they need access to mass media. That is why autocrats look to silence those media. Fortunately, the internet is harder to control for now. Naturally, that means that supporters of the repressive status quo also have access to it. So it is up to intellectuals to engage on that level and produce better arguments. I realize that is easier said than done but nevertheless, it has to be done.
The letter is an international initiative. I was wondering your perspective about international responses to national problems. Do you think intellectual solidarity on an international level and letters, protests such as the one you initiated are symbolic?
In a world that is globally engaged every minute of its life, it is inevitable that there should be international interest and involvement in national problems, particularly once national problems develop serious international implications. I would not dream of advising how the voters of a specific foreign town should act in some local issue. It is vital to avoid arrogance and any appearance of it. I don’t tell my neighbours what colour to paint their bathroom. But when there is a plea for international support by those endangered in one way or another in a state of which I do know something I think it is right that I respond. To go back to my homely analogy, if my neighbour’s house is on fire I don’t think it is wrong of me to alert the fire brigade.
I found myself thinking, as a citizen of a country that is trying to be a member of the EU since half a century, how can a university face closure under the umbrella of the EU? Do you think EU could provide a standardization in terms of education or is it failing on these fronts?
The European Commission is, in fact, looking at the application of the lexCEU and I desperately hope they will find the process illegal, as indeed many Hungarian constitutional lawyers, as far as I understand, believe it is.I don’t think it is the business of the EU to standardize the curriculum of any university but it is its business to act if a member nation attempts to shut down international institutions of education using improvised laws. It is a very difficult balance between the power of sovereign nations to do what they want and the generally agreed principles of the larger body of which they are a part. The battle is precisely in that relationship. That, presumably, is why the EU has not yet expelled Hungary.
As a refugee yourself, how do you see the recent refugee crisis in Europe and Europe’s response to the crisis? I am asking this question in relation to your experience as a British citizen experiencing Brexit as well.
I argued very hard against Brexit. I campaigned too, too little and too late. I think it leaving the EU is a tragically shortsighted move that has increased tensions in the UK to the extent that it might yet split apart. Just as harmfully it has opened the door to hostility towards foreign workers in the UK and towards foreigners in general. The role of refugees in the argument was never as clear as that of the free movement of labour within the EU but it was referred to in the campaign. The large poster promoted by Nigel Farage showed a long queue of Syrian refugees waiting at some supposed British border. That was about refugees and about race, Boris Johnson warned us about 80 million Turks waiting to invade our shores once Turkey joined the EU. For me personally, as a refugee, the aggressive mood engendered by the Leave campaign is particularly painful to watch. I was very much aware of the kindness shown to us in 1956 and this seems a terrible contrast, both in the UK and in Hungary.
As you may know, there is a referendum in Turkey today about a change in the constitution which will eventually change the republican system into a presidential one. Do you see any similarities between Hungary and Turkey and the ways the two countries are experiencing democracy today?
My impression from my reading is that Turkey is ahead of Hungary in the race towards a closed and autocratic society, hence Orbán’s admiration. In one respect it is a strange world where a democratic process results in an autocracy, in another there are historical precedents, specifically in the 1930s. But that may well be because the apparently democratic process is restricted by lack of opportunity for an opposition to present its case. In Hungary, most of the press, radio and TV is in Orbán’s pocket. No one has been arrested or jailed yet as far as I know but many have lost their jobs or found their employers squeezed out of business. And if Orbán succeeds in closing the CEU and proceeding to the NGOs the day can’t be far when independent voices face arrest.
What would you recommend to Turkish intelligentsia in their struggle against the authoritarian government? There are many writers and journalists who had to flee the country and currently in exile in different parts of the world. How can they keep creativity and productivity when adjusting to the conditions of exile?
I can’t presume to advise Turkish people who are actually living in Turkey. I am not in their circumstances and I don’t live with their dangers. Nor do I live with the potential difficulties of living in Hungary. Those in exile face many problems in terms of publishing, readership, audience, access and so on. The 1956 Uprising produced a great many intellectuals in exile. Their possibilities were much restricted. The writers depended on translators and a sympathetic public. They were often reduced to speaking to each other. It was much easier for me – I was a child then. The only thing I would say is that where there are means of speaking and being heard – whether through the international press or through the internet – it can be very valuable for those still at home. It is encouraging and broadening. I think it is worthwhile. Clearly, I do, that is why I am active to the degree I am.