MEPs seek academic protections after CEU ruling arrives too late

Despite a favourable ruling from the EU’s top court, the Central European University, pushed out of Hungary, will remain in Vienna

October 8, 2020
Picture of a billboard from Fidesz, the political party Hungarian PM Viktor Orban against the opposition, accusing it of being friends with billionaire George Soros, during the campaign for the 2018 parliament elections in Hungary
Source: iStock

European Union lawmakers are hoping to create new safeguards that would cut off funding to member states that violate academic freedom, as the bloc struggles to meaningfully punish authoritarian governments that threaten universities.

This week the EU’s top court ruled that the law used by Hungary’s authoritarian government to largely expel the Central European University, set up in the 1990s to promote democratic values in former communist countries, was incompatible with European law.

CEU president Michael Ignatieff said that the judgment rendered the law that forced out the university “inoperable” and announced the creation of a new CEU institute focused on democracy in Budapest, plus the possibility of resuming a “few” US-accredited programmes in the Hungarian capital.

But he confirmed that Vienna, where the university has relocated at a cost of €200 million (£183 million), would remain the CEU’s “permanent home”.

“The judgment’s not going to change that,” he said.

“There is no way that CEU leadership would risk going back to Hungary given the disruption caused by the move,” said Brigid Laffan, an expert on EU governance at the European University Institute in Florence. “Academics do not want to live in a country that is authoritarian and where academic freedom is being attacked. I doubt the faculty would return.”

Brussels failed to act quickly enough after Hungary rushed through legal measures against the CEU in 2017 – part of a wider campaign of demonisation aimed at CEU founder and liberal philanthropist George Soros – said Laurent Pech, professor of European law at Middlesex University. “In practical terms, the ruling will make little to no difference as it is about three years too late,” he commented.

Still, Professor Ignatieff argued that the ruling set a “dramatic” precedent that should strengthen academic protections across Europe. The court found that Hungary had breached various international and European agreements, violating both academic and business freedoms.

This is the first ruling from the court to deal extensively with university autonomy, Professor Pech explained. “Universities will from now on be able to rely on this precedent to judicially challenge national measures,” he said.

But enforcement needs an independent judiciary, he explained, which has been under attack in Hungary for years.

Responding to the judgment, Hungary’s justice minister said that the country would implement the ruling “in the interest of Hungarians”, giving no sign that it would welcome the CEU back.

MEPs are now working on a new mechanism to penalise authoritarian governments. In response to the erosion of judicial and media independence in Hungary and Poland, four of the European Parliament’s biggest groupings are now demanding that EU funding – including the bloc’s huge new €750 billion pandemic recovery fund – is conditional on member states respecting the rule of law.

Those leading the push for a new mechanism say that it would protect academic freedom too. “The European Parliament wants to include the whole spectrum of fundamental rights in the annual report [on which a rule of law judgment would be based],” said Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a Green MEP. “This includes academic freedom, which we believe is a fundamental right integral to our shared EU values,” she said. Kati Piri, a Dutch MEP for the Socialists and Democrats grouping, confirmed that academic freedom would be included.

But MEPs’ plans may be watered down in negotiations with member states as EU institutions try to seal a budget deal in time for the beginning of next year.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Michael Ignatieff is a former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada and so hardly an apolitical figure. Nor is George Soros. Hence, the CEU cannot be presumed to be a purely scholarly and apolitical organisation. The "shared values" of the EU are themselves contested, at least in their application. There are no easy answers when powerful individuals seek to influence a culture through its education system.

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