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23rd Jan 2021

Orban move evicting Budapest university 'unlawful'

  • Part of the Central European University's former campus in Budapest (Photo: CEU Hungary)

The EU's highest court on Tuesday (6 October) ruled that changes by Hungary to its higher education law which forced a university founded by Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros to quit the country, was in breach of EU law.

The 2017 legislation put the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), established in 1991 by Soros, under pressure in what became one of prime minister Viktor Orban's emblematic battles with the EU.

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At the time, the university said it had compliedwith all the new rules but the Orban government refused to sign off on allowing the university to stay in the Hungarian capital. The CEU then relocated to Vienna.

Orban has vilified Soros for years, arguing that the billionaire philanthropist wants to undermine Europe's Christian identity with his liberal views on migration, and accused critics of working with the billionaire, which Soros has denied.

Orban last week called the commission's annual rule of law review "Soros-report".

The European Court of Justice ruling said 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 court said requirements for bilateral agreements between Hungary and the country where the institution has its seat, and for the institutions to offer courses in their home country, do not comply with EU law.

The commission, which launched the case in 2017, said in a statement that "Hungary now needs to take prompt measures to comply and bring its national provisions in line with EU law."

"The commission will closely monitor the implementation of the ruling," commission spokesman Christian Wigand told EUobserver.

'Too little, too late'

The CEU's president Michael Ignatieff called it a "landmark" ruling and a "vindication" for CEU.

"This judgment is a total repudiation of Viktor Orban's legal strategy since 2017 and, most importantly, it renders 'Lex CEU' inapplicable in Hungary," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff added that the university will need time to decide if it will re-establish some US-accredited academic programs in Hungary.

"The judgement strengthens academic institutional autonomy not just for us but any institution," Ignatieff said, but added that it came at a high price for the CEU, which, he noted, remains the only university thrown out of a European country since the 1930s.

"European leaders thinking of copying Viktor Orban will have to think twice," Ignatieff said.

Soros in a statement called the ruling "a victory for the fundamental values of the European Union".

He pointed out that "the decision comes too late for CEU".

"We cannot return to Hungary because its prevailing laws don't meet the requirements of academic freedom. The Hungarian government continues to trample EU law, with the latest victim being the world-renowned University of Theatre and Arts (SZFE)," Soros said, calling on the EU to make Hungary a "test case" when it comes to ensuring that EU funds are used in line with the rule-of-law.

Despite pledges from senior EU politicians to save the Budapest-based university, including during a visit to the CEU by then commission-president candidate from the European People's Party (EPP) Manfred Weber last year, they failed.

Orban subsequently did not support Weber for the position of the commission chief.

Compliance?

But it is also not the first time that facts on the ground, created by Orban's government, are irreversible by the time the EU court rules on a case.

"It is not for the commission to assess the timing of the ECJ [court] judgements," Wigand added, saying that "the judgement provides an important clarification for all universities – EU and non-EU – about the legality of their operations in Hungary as well as other member states".

The Hungarian government on Tuesday remained vague about whether they will comply.

"We consider the double standard unacceptable, all universities in Hungary must comply with the law equally. It is not possible to create a law that will put the Soros University in a better position than Hungarian universities," justice minister Judit Varga told MTI news agency.

Varga added that "Hungary will, as always, implement the judgment of the European Court of Justice in line with the interests of Hungarians", without giving details.

Hungary has been reluctant to comply with previous ECJ rulings.

In June, the EU top court said that Hungary's law on requiring NGOs with foreign-funding to register and disclose their donors breaks EU law.

Despite the ruling, a few months later a Hungarian authority tasked with coordinating EU funds denied a human rights education NGO funding over noncompliance with the same law, which has been struck down by the court.

That NGO, Power of Humanity Foundation, has now turned to the commission.

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The dispute over control of the film and theatre school has generated global support with dozens of internationally recognised artists - including actresses Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren and author Salman Rushdie - supporting the school and its autonomy.

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