Provisions in Hungary’s law on higher education that affect how foreign universities operate in the country breach EU law, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled. Hungary’s parliament amended the country’s law on higher education in 2017, obliging foreign universities that issue their own degrees in Hungary to carry out educational activities in their home countries, while also making their operations dependent on a bilateral agreement between the Hungarian government and the country in which the universities are based. Later that year, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary, saying the new regulations violated EU laws. In its ruling, the court said the regulations unnecessarily curbed the institutions’ freedom of establishment and the free movement of services.
Justice Minister Judit Varga said in reaction to the ruling that “applying double standards is unacceptable”, arguing that each university must observe effective regulations. Referring to the Central European University (CEU) founded by financier George Soros, which moved the bulk of its teaching to Vienna after the law was enacted, she said: “It is not possible to pass legislation which would benefit the Soros university more than Hungarian universities.” Varga added, however, that the Hungarian government would, as always, abide by the court’s ruling. The minister also said that “a dozen” foreign universities in Hungary were governed by the contested legislation, adding that “most of them had no problem” meeting its stipulations.
CEU head Michael Ignatieff hailed the ECJ ruling as a major moral and legal victory for academic freedom. At a press conference held in Vienna, he said that a benchmark decision had been passed to reinforce legal protection for Europe’s free institutions. He welcomed that the ruling annulled Hungary’s “lex CEU” and restored the CEU’s freedoms. He added, however, that the university would maintain its campus in Vienna, while plans concerning Budapest were yet to be finalised.
István Hiller, Socialist deputy speaker of parliament, said he did not expect the ruling to change the situation, adding that “the government will stick to its point”. He said that a political decision had led to the contested legislation, and argued that “the problem was not with the performance of the CEU but with the fact that it had been founded by George Soros”. He insisted that issues around the university could only be resolved through a “political change”.
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony said the city would “happily” welcome the university and its students and teachers back. “Today the European Court of Justice ruled that lex CEU breaches EU law and that it’s simply unacceptable in Europe,” Karácsony said on Facebook. “I am under no illusion as to whether the government will repent and invite the CEU back but Budapest would happily welcome the university, its teachers and students back.”
Driving away the country’s most internationally renowned university was “one of the most outrageous government decisions of the last ten years”, the mayor said. “The university’s move to Vienna made both the country and Budapest poorer and the capital’s previous leadership silently played along,” Karácsony said. “The government considered its deceitful propaganda more important than education and respecting academic freedom.”