In a preliminary decision handed down March 5, the European Union’s Advocate General has declared unequivocally that Hungary’s 2017 restrictions on foreign universities – the so-called “Lex CEU” – violate both WTO rules and EU law. The precedent-setting decision from the EU’s chief advocate is considered indicative of a final ruling from the full European Court of Justice (ECJ) expected this Fall.
The Central European University hailed the decision, saying that it “affirms, in every detail” the university’s case against the Hungarian government, since Lex CEU was passed in April 2017. The European Commission subsequently took Hungary to court; should ECJ confirm the Advocate General’s opinion, the university said in a statement, “Hungary will be required, as a member of the EU, to scrap lex CEU and restore [our] ability to operate as a US-accredited university in Hungary.”
The law’s requirements for bilateral agreements between Hungary and a university’s country of origin, and for active teaching programs on an overseas home campus “constitute a disproportionate restriction… on academic freedom,” wrote Advocate General Juliane Kokott in her opinion – violating both EU freedom of establishment and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Unable to grant US graduate degrees in Hungary, the CEU moved a major part of its operations to Vienna, including a new undergraduate division required under Austrian law, while maintaining Hungarian accredited programs, research activities and “a vigorous public presence” in Budapest. Whatever the court outcome, the university said it plans to remain in Austrian capital.
A law for one
From the first, the 2017 law was understood as an assault on the Central European University in particular, the only institution that did not meet the new requirements. Founded in 1991 with programs in social sciences, law and humanities, the CEU was the brainchild of Hungarian emigré financier and philanthropist George Soros, to support the transition from communism to democracy in the region. Attracting a distinguished faculty and talented students from across Central Europe, CEU has been considered a model in furthering EU goals of internationalism and cultural integration. It was these very qualities that became the target of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing populist party Fidesz.
After months of negotiation, all attempts to find a middle ground between the university and the government failed, and as of January 2019, no new students could enroll in US-accredited degrees in the Hungarian capital. “CEU has been forced out,” said President and Rector Michael Ignatieff in December 2018.
In a related move, a second 2017 ruling enabled the government to oversee the finances of all Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs), including the anti-corruption Transparency International. This ruling too has been declared incompatible with EU law.
The CEU and Hugarian-based NGOs form are considered crucial to public opposition to the Orban regime’s assaults on democratic values. In one example, The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union provides legal representation to citizens in human rights violation cases, and have won against the government in court on several occasions.
Suppressing disapproving voices
It is this opposition that Orban and Firesz hope to stamp out. “NGOs have no right to conceal who their real supporters are,” argued Deputy Speaker Gergely Gulyás in April 2017, calling for a public filing of benefactors for any groups receiving more than 7.2 million forints (c.€20.000) annually from abroad.
“Disproportionate and unjustified,” asserted the EU’s preliminary ruling in January on the Hungarian NGO-law. Specifically, it violates freedom of association, and allows authorities to “ideologically profile the donor,” wrote Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona, ultimately affecting “the viability and the survival of the organisations”.
For Orbán, Soros himself is a prime provocation. Through his Open Society Foundation, he has financed NGOs since the 1980s and, Fidesz insists, is using them to influence politics and promote mass immigration. Not so, said the NGOs in a 2017 statement: The legislation’s purpose was rather to “discredit and silence civil society organisations trying to hold the government accountable on anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
It comes down to compliance with the EU’s founding values, concluded the European Parliament in January, and urged the Council to give concrete instructions and deadlines, so as not to undercut the integrity of the EU. Failure to do so could lead to sanctions, they said, eventually to the suspension of voting rights in the Council.
(Fotos: Ceu.edu/Unsplash/Amnesty Hungary/Twitter)