Hungary breached obligations to uphold academic freedom, EU top court ruled

The main entrance to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, 19 December 2019. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down on Tuesday (6 October) the Hungarian education law that had pushed the university funded by American billionaire George Soros to move out of Budapest. The court said this ran contrary to the principle of academic freedom as well as the freedom to conduct business and provide services.

The European Commission took Hungary to court over the Higher Education Law in December 2017, arguing it disproportionally restricted EU and non-EU universities in their operations and needs to be brought back in line with EU law.

At the time of its adoption, critics immediately said the law was primarily directed at forcing out the Central European University, funded by US-Hungarian billionaire Soros, whom Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government accuses of orchestrating migration to Europe.

An amendment to the law, passed in April 2017, required bilateral agreements between Hungary and non-European Economic Area (EEA) countries from which the foreign universities originated.

The requirement of an international treaty, besides running afoul WTO rules, “is also contrary to the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’) relating to academic freedom, the freedom to found higher education institutions and the freedom to conduct a business,” the ECJ ruling said.

The law also obliged all foreign universities, including EU institutions, to provide higher education services in their country of origin, and introduced special requirements for registration and authorisation in Hungary.

Similarly, the court said that the requirement violated WTO commitments and breached Hungary’s “obligations in respect of the freedom of establishment, the free movement of services” and provisions of the EU’s fundamental rights pact.

The judges said the requirement could pose a danger to the academic activities of foreign universities through potentially depriving the establishments of their “autonomous infrastructure” and therefore illegally limited academic freedom.

There was no immediate reaction from the Hungarian authorities.

In October 2017, the CEU said that it had complied with the requirements of the new law but has been unable to receive an authorisation ever since. The authorities then said that “it is an administrative issue.”

The CEU has stood as a bastion of liberal thinking across Eastern Europe since it was first opened in 1991, after communism collapsed. Forced to look for a new residence elsewhere, it has since opened a new main campus in Vienna last year.

CEU pledges not to 'abandon its home' but sticks to transfer plans

The Central European University (CEU) hailed on Thursday (5 March) an opinion from the advocate general of the EU’s top court, which said restrictions imposed by Hungary on foreign universities breach WTO and EU law but said that it will continue to transfer its operations to Vienna.

For his part, Soros has pledged a total of $1.75 billion to set up an international network of universities called Open Society University Network, with CEU at its core, and help with the relocation costs to Vienna.

The case is the latest defeat for the Hungarian government in a series of high-profile cases, in which the Luxembourg based court found that restrictions imposed on foreign financing of NGOs were “discriminatory and unjustified” and transit zones holding migrants and asylum seekers amounted to a deprivation of liberty, prompting the authorities to shut them down.

Top EU court strikes down Hungary's NGO financing law

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said on Thursday (18 June) that the restrictions imposed on the financing of civil organisations by foreigners in Hungary were “discriminatory and unjustified” and went against EU law.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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