News & Analysis

Hungary suffers defeat at ECJ, but ruling comes too late for CEU

Europe’s top court has ruled that a Hungarian law that forced the Central European University (CEU) out of the country was not in line with EU law.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled against the government of Viktor Orbán, saying that “the conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law.”

The ECJ also said that the law had resulted in Hungary failing “to comply with the commitments” set out by the World Trade Organisation.

In April 2017, Hungary adopted, as a matter of urgency, amendments to a law that governs the way in which higher education is administered. The amendment – the main object of which was a change to licensing regulations for foreign higher education institutions – was presented by Mr Orbán as being necessary to safeguard the quality of teaching in the country, but was widely viewed as a direct attack on CEU and its founder, the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros.

Later that year, the European Commission launched infringement procedures against Hungary, saying the new regulations violated EU laws.

Part of the law required foreign universities operating in Hungary to strike a bilateral agreement between the country’s government and the their country of origin, and also to offer teaching services in their home country.

While the ruling leaves no room for appeal, and requires Mr Orban’s government to change the legislation to come in line with EU laws, it has come too late to save CEU’s Budapest campus, which – despite taking all necessary steps to comply with the new legislation, including opening a facility in the US state of New York where it is registered – was eventually forced out of Hungary, formally relocating to Vienna in 2019, where it plans on staying.

“We cannot return to Hungary, because its prevailing laws don’t meet the requirements of academic freedom,” said Mr Soros in a statement.

Offering US-accredited master’s programmes, CEU, founded in 1991, had long been viewed by Mr Orbán, along with the Open Society Foundation (OSF) – also financed by Mr Soros – as a hostile bastion of liberalism.

The OSF was also forced to halt operations in Hungary following the passing of legislation in 2018 that criminalised any individual or group that offers help to illegal immigrants claiming asylum.

Under the law, known as “Stop Soros”, individuals or groups that help illegal migrants to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

The European Union has since launched proceedings against Hungary at the ECJ over the “Stop Soros” law. The court is not likely to issue a ruling until next year.

The ECJ’s decision over CEU is, however, likely to provide a boost to students at Budapest’s University for Theatre and Film, who have been protesting for more than a month against what they claim is a takeover of the university by Mr Orbán’s government.

The students fear the university’s new board, led by an ally of Mr Orbán, will rob the faculty of its autonomy. Legislation, quickly pushed through Hungary’s parliament earlier this summer, transfers the ownership of the public university to a private foundation. At the time, Mr Orbán said that the changes would allow the university to “operate more independently of the state” and would result in “improved opportunities for students studying theatrical arts, television and the film industry.”

In practice however, the law has so far done the opposite. Despite the Hungarian government’s vow to give the university’s administration a say in determining the running of the institution, the government rejected board members proposed by the university’s senate, and instead appointed five pro-government officials.

In protest, the university’s entire senate, the bulk of its administrative staff, and some faculty members resigned in protest in September, fearing that the move would deprive them of the ability to independently decide on budgetary, organisational, and personnel issues.

Students have staged a sit-in ever since, with between 70-100 barricaded inside the university’s main building at any time.

Katalin Cseh, an MEP for Hungary’s opposition Momentum party, believes that ECJ ruling is a warning for the Hungarian government.

“Viktor Orbán and his government must respect academic freedoms,” she says. “The CEU case is all of us. When the Hungarian government attacked the university, the freedom of the school, the freedom of education, it placed freedom of expression in danger. CEU was unlawfully driven away from Hungary. The university is now primarily operating in Vienna, which is a huge loss for both the country and the region. However, the decision of the European Court of Justice is also a warning for the Hungarian government, which now wants to occupy another university, the University of Theatre and Film, and drive away people who think differently.”

In a statement, CEU also expressed hope that the Hungarian government would “take the opportunity to reverse course and restore the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of other universities in Hungary.”

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