JULY 16 — BARCELONA — You might think that George Soros has done enough to be regarded as something of a national hero in his native Hungary.
Born with the name Gyorgy Schwartz in Budapest in 1930, he managed to survive the Second World War despite being Jewish in a Nazi occupied territory and emigrated to England shortly after peace was declared.
Still only a teenager, he started out with nothing in a new country and needed a long time to establish himself, working hard to gain a Master’s degree in philosophy from the London School of Economics and eventually gaining employment in a merchant bank, which soon led to another relocation to New York City.
In America, Soros’s career took off. He became a hedge fund manager with enormous success, earning a degree of fame in 1992 for making an estimated US$1 billion (RM4.29 million) in a single day of trading by betting against the British pound sterling, which was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in a crash commonly known as the UK economy’s “Black Wednesday.”
Now 86 years old and still living in New York, Soros remains active and hugely successful, accumulating an estimated personal fortune of US$25 billion to become one of the wealthiest men on earth.
His rise is a remarkable rags to riches story, with his success coming through personal endeavour, talent and durability. Unlike, for example, Donald Trump, he did not inherit an initial fortune or benefit from nepotism, and he can be held up as a shining example that the mythical American Dream can still sometimes come true.
Having endured such a torrid childhood in Hungary, you might forgive Soros for allowing his old homeland to become long forgotten in the distant past. If ever anyone had the right to turn his back on his roots and focus on the new life he has made for himself, Soros is that person.
But he has not done that. As well as being a renowned investor, Soros is also one of the world’s great philanthropists, donating more than US$10 billion to various causes over the last 30 years.
And he has certainly not forgotten Hungary, because one of his biggest donations was an endowment of nearly US$1 billion to found the Central European University in his old hometown of Budapest.
The English-language institution has nearly 1,500 students from around 100 countries, offering degrees in social sciences and humanities which are accredited in both Hungary and the United States, and it exists largely thanks to Soros.
Having such an internationally-minded university in a part of the world which desperately needs development, surely, can only be a good thing? And Soros, the man who funded it, can surely only be commended by his fellow Hungarians for making a fortune and then giving much of it back to improve the lives of people in the land of his birth?
Sadly, that is not so, and the Central European University is currently facing a very real threat of being shut down by Hungarian authorities.
The problem is that Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban regards Soros as a severe ideological danger, especially in the light of his opinions on a subject which has done more than any other to divide Europe in the last five years: immigration.
As you would expect from his own personal story, Soros is a staunch supporter of immigration. He has argued that the European Union should be prepared to welcome 300,000 immigrants from countries such as Turkey and Jordan every year, believing that a steady influx of new arrivals can play a key role in addressing many of the EU’s labour problems.
Orban, however, could not be further from this point of view. His Fidesz party are notorious opponents of immigration, and Orban left no room for doubt last year when he stated: “Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work… every single migrant poses a security and terror risk… for us migration is not a medicine but a poison.”
He has not been afraid to back up those words with action, building a 500-kilometre fence along Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia to keep out migrants, and the strength of his policy is reflected in the fact that Hungary only accepted 550 new arrivals last year.
This week, Orban has taken his offensive against Soros to a new level by spending US$20 million on a high-profile poster campaign, depicting a grinning Soros with the message: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh. 99% oppose illegal immigration!”
There has been some public outrage against Orban’s attempts to diminish Soros’s presence and influence, with 10,000 protestors walking the streets in April to show their support for the Central European University, which Orban is attempting to close down by introducing a series of new laws targeting foreign-owned or funded organisations.
Many ordinary Hungarians fear that Orban is leading Hungary away from Western Europe and towards ever-closer ties with Russia, which has ominously already closed down another university funded by Soros in St Petersburg.
But Orban is not prime minister for nothing. He was elected into power on the basis of strong popular support, and it’s by no means certain there will be sufficient public backing for Soros to force Orban to back down.
Quite simply, millions of ordinary Hungarians wholly support Orban’s attempts to prevent immigration, and strongly disagree with Soros’s view that refugees should be welcomed with open arms.
The same story is playing out all over Europe, and nobody really knows what will happen next. From Brexit to the Turkish border with Syria, the question of whether outsiders should be kept out or welcomed is the biggest single issue across the continent.
And with opinions so divided, not even one of the world’s wealthiest men can be confident of getting his own way.