EU Puts Hungary’s Viktor Orban On Notice

To do a thorough legal assessment of the new Higher Education Act that has sparked protests

The European Commission on Wednesday expressed concern about Hungary’s amendment to its Higher Education Act as well as its adherence to European Union values at a meeting of the College of Commissioners in Brussels. The College discussed last week’s amendments made to the 2011 National Higher Education Act by Hungary’s Parliament restricting the educational and funding activities of foreign universities in the country. The discussion also included Hungary’s draft law on the funding of NGOs and its treatment of migrants.

“We need to quickly complete a thorough legal assessment of its [the law’s] compatibility with free movement of services and the freedom of establishment,” EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said of the Higher Education Act, adding that the Commission would consider next steps by April-end.

Targeting CEU

The amendments, which were signed into law on Monday by Hungarian President Janos Ader, were championed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn and are seen as specifically targeting the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros. The CEU will likely have to shut down given the way the new laws are written.

“The amendments are set up to look trivially procedural but in reality they demand actions from the CEU that it cannot deliver and require it to adopt rules that would endanger its academic autonomy,” Abby Innes, a professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, told The Hindu . The new rules would require, among other things, the CEU to open a campus in the state of New York as well as reach an inter-governmental agreement with the U.S. Federal government, even though higher education is a state subject in the U.S., Ms. Innes said.

The university, founded in 1991, has some 1,400 students from 130 countries. The new laws have been met with widespread protests in Budapest with some 70,000 people marching on Sunday across the Danube to Parliament.

Mr Orbàn, a known critic of the organisations run by Mr. Soros, has taken issue with the CEU issuing diplomas that are recognised both by the U.S. and Hungary. Ironically, Mr Orbàn himself attended Oxford University as a Soros Scholar in 1989.

“The CEU has breached no law. It is being specifically targeted in a discriminatory manner, apparently because it remains an independent and critical institution that goes against the grain of a government that has increasingly sought to establish a monologue of power,” Ms. Innes told The Hindu .

NGO funding

The European Commission’s discussions on Wednesday also included concerns about a draft Hungarian law that would require NGOs to declare foreign funding, something that the Commission would be following closely, Mr. Timmermans said. 

“There can be legitimate public interest reasons for ensuring transparency of funding, but any measures need to be proportionate and must not create undue discrimination within the EU,” he said.

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