Michael Ignatieff condemns EU inaction against Hungary, ‘a simulacra of democracy’
Michael Ignatieff, in conversation with David Runciman at the Babbage Lecture Theatre last week, condemned the present-day governance of Hungary and accused the EU of standing by while Prime Minister Orban “uses democratic legitimacy to evacuate a democracy of substance”.
Ignatieff, a leader of the Canadian Liberal party between 2008 and 2011, became president-rector of the Central European University (CEU) in 2016. After 25 years in Budapest, in 2018 the CEU redeployed the university to Vienna when the government refused to allowing the teaching of its US-accredited programs in Hungary. The graduate-level private university was founded in 1991 in response to the fall of the Communist bloc with funding from financier and philanthropist George Soros. It is ranked as one of the world’s top universities for social sciences and humanities.
“I’m the only director of a university forced to move an entire university from one city to another, and we did it because the Hungarian prime minister decided to make George Soros public enemy number one: all those echoes from the 1930s were deeply sinister,” Ignatieff said during the session.
“I’ve learned in Hungary that you can have a country that looks like a democracy, sounds like a democracy, has laws and courts, but it’s not free,” he said, referring to the nation downgraded by the human rights organisation Freedom House to the status of “partly free” (the only EU member state to carry such status).
“This is something new in the 21st century - democracies with the form of a democracy but they’ve been completely hollowed out. It’s totally politically arbitrary - the judiciary has been demolished, the press sold off to the highest bidder. And Europe does absolutely nothing - both the European institutions and national governments have stood and watched. That’s the sad story. The good story is that in the fall, out of nowhere, Gergely Karácsony won the mayor’s office in Budapest. So don’t think this is eternal but today you have institutions which look like a democracy but are a facade - a sumulacra.”
His three-year run as leader of Canada’s Liberal party he does not consider a success.
“If every political career ends in failure, let me tell you… it didn’t go so well,” he said to laughter. “I thought if I was asked a question I had to answer it as a politician. I didn’t understand it was a performance - you have to be psychologically all-in. You have to inhabit the role and you have to attack in ways that take a long time to understand.
“I was accused of being soft on torture - nothing could be further from the truth. I replied like an academic - ‘refer to page 436 of my report, but you have to say ‘How dare you!?’. You have to do a flip.
“Politicians have to have a sense of reality, to learn from a room - like this - what people are hoping for, what they aspire to. And I didn’t have that, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said to more laughter - although the evening proved he understood his audience very well. “As academics we have almost no understanding of what this sense of reality is. Franklin D Roosevelt, for instance [32nd US President from 1933 to 1945]. He understood that the country was frightened at that time, at its core, and he said: ‘You have nothing to fear but fear itself’. And that is the key, the big thing is fear.”
Today, the fears are mounting. Asked by host David Runciman about a generational divide in elections around the world, including in the recent Irish election and Brexit, Igantieff responded: “I never lived with existential anxieties as my daughter does say exist. There’s a generational divide in my own family. They’re asking: ‘Where is my economic security?’ and ‘What is my route to buying a home?’ Things have become unstuck and that’s a real issue.”
At this event, organised by the Centre for the Future of Democracy, Igantieff was phelgmatic about the future.
“Democratic politics is basically a way people can avoid killing each other,” he said. “It’s discourse. The point is, democracy is a discursive phenomenon and not as dependent on institutions as people suppose.”
On climate change, Ignatieff said “the problem is ‘we’ now has become global and we have no institution capable of enacting global legislation and good practice”.
“All this stuff is going to get tougher and tougher for everyone, but if you believe that democracy can give people everything they want, we’ll blow the place up.”
Describing today’s chaos he referred to social media and said the challenges are due to “a structural issue not in democracy but in our social life”. And he concluded with an alarm bell going off in “Hong Kong, Venezuela, even Hungary”.
“The Hong Kong situation is excruciating,” he said, adding: “People will not secure democracy unless they are prepared to fight for themselves. No one else can give you democracy, you have to hold it and fight for it yourself.”