CEU’s Hexit: Hungary’s higher education reforms breach EU law

October 24, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The ECJ’s recent judgment has concluded that Hungary has breached EU Law with its reform of higher education rules. 

What does this mean?

The Hungarian conservative Fidesz government has brought about changes which have effectively forced the liberal CEU (Central European University) out of the country. The ECJ has stated that the reforms were incompatible with EU law, as well as being an infringement on the provisions of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The new law states that foreign universities must have a “parent” university in their country of origin. Other elements of Orbán’s reforms involve the privatisation of 13 state universities, and that research institutes formerly under the Academy of Sciences are now under the control of the Ministry of Innovation. This is with the intention for the government to have increased control over what is being done and taught within these university institutions. For CEU, the university has concluded that the amendments make it impossible to continue its operations within Budapest, as they “damage Hungarian academic life”, states CEU’s President and Rector, Michael Ignatieff.

The new reforms put CEU in the firing line, leaving it with no choice but to pack up and leave. CEU, founded by the Hungarian-born American philanthropist, George Soros, has a dual legal identity being registered in both Hungary and New York State but with no parallel university in the US. It has now been effectively ousted by Orbán’s reforms and has moved more than 90% of its teaching to a new campus in Vienna, at the cost of €200m.

What's the big picture effect?

This is just a part of a greater series of events orchestrated by Orbán and his government. Alongside being seen as a direct attack on the liberal work of Soros, it can be seen as part of Orbán’s contribution to de-democratisation within the EU. He has, for years, been accused of contravening civil liberties, corruption, and the rule of law. Fidesz restructuring in the years of Orbán’s government has extended into education and culture, while also including crackdowns on human rights groups.

The ECJ’s judgment comes amidst a battle over democratic backsliding (a concept describing the gradual decline in the quality of democracy) between Brussels and Budapest which has been going on for years. We assume freedom and academic expression is a given within the EU. In the last few years, however, this freedom has been more openly attacked in some EU countries. This is at odds with other figureheads of the EU, such as German leader, Angela Merkel and French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the tendency for the EU to be stocked with liberal leaders.

Under the ECJ ruling, Hungary, as a member state, is legally forced to immediately comply with the judgment. If it refuses, the EU Commission can seek to impose a fine. Although Hungary’s Minister of Justice has commented that “Hungary will implement the judgment…in line with the interests of Hungarians”, CEU Rector Ignatieff has concluded that the Minister of Justice’s comment “does not make legal sense”. It is looking unlikely that Hungary will comply with the EU ruling.

Hungarian opposition MEP, Katalin Cseh, believes that the court’s decision has come too late. She states that now CEU is out of Hungary, there have been further cuts to the “channels of social mobility of thousands of Hungarians and central European students, who could not otherwise afford to have a world class American degree”. The politically motivated attack on the freedom of education by Orbán is unlikely to be reversed, as she comments “I am sorry to say that the reaction of the EU came far too late”.

Has the EU been asleep at the wheel until now? It seems it will certainly be too late for CEU, having moved countries to maintain its freedom of academic expression… but will it be too late for Hungary? Or even too late to save the democratic reputation of the EU?

Report written by Hannah Parker

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