On 6 October 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that the Hungarian government violated EU law in 2017 when it changed its education legislation. The amendments made headlines as they ultimately led the Central European University (CEU), an EUA member, to move most of its operations from Budapest to Vienna.
The ECJ ruling confirms that Hungary’s measures were in conflict with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and EU law regarding the freedom of establishment and the free movement of services. It also confirms that the measures were contrary to the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom (Article 13), the freedom to found educational establishments (Article 14 (3)) and the freedom to conduct a business (Article 16).
The Court emphasised that academic freedom not only has an individual dimension related to the freedom of expression and the dissemination of research, but also an institutional and organisational dimension reflected in the autonomy of higher education institutions.
EUA has followed the case of Hungary closely and has, on several occasions, raised its concerns over Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies, which include a history of violations against academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The ECJ ruling comes against a backdrop of developments that are unprecedented in the European Union, such as the passage of the bill targeting CEU (2017), the ban on gender studies (2018), the European Parliament invoking Article 7 against Hungary (2018), and the passage of a law giving the government unprecedented control over scientific research bodies (2019). There is also evidence of intimidation of academics in the Hungarian media.
Hungary’s actions have been damaging to the country’s reputation and standing, and have worrying implications for research and higher education, both in Hungary and in Europe as a whole. Freedom from political intervention and pressure is a condition sine qua non in enabling universities to fulfil their critical role in our societies.
Regarding the ECJ ruling, there is no appeals process for the Hungarian government and the decision requires that Hungary aligns its laws with EU laws. If this does not happen, Hungary could face fines.