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European Court of Justice strikes down “lex CEU”

Back in 2017, Hungary’s Parliament passed an amendment to the country’s higher education law (see ACA Newsletter article of April 2017) requiring foreign universities operating in Hungary to run teaching programmes in their ‘home country’ as well. The bill was rightly regarded by the academic community in Hungary and worldwide as a “lex CEU”, for only the Central European University was concerned by it. The bill was only one step – though the most important one – in a vendetta of longer standing between Victor Orban and Hungarian-born billionaire and philantropist George Soros. Soros and his various foundations supporting  “open societies” had been the motor behind the creation and the main funder of the CEU. Ironically, the by 2017 very autocratic Orban had earlier in his life benefitted from a scholarship of Soros’ liberal Open Society Foundation.

The bill was met with massive criticism with 60,000 demonstrating in the streets of Budapest and academia around the world declaring solidarity with the CEU (ACA included). CEU tried to comply with the law by opening a site in New York State, but the Hungarian government regarded this as insufficient. In the end, CEU decided to move the majority of its operations to Vienna, keeping only some programmes taught in Hungarian in Budapest.  

On 7 December 2017, the European Commission decided to refer Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union on the grounds that the new law was not compatible with the freedom of higher education institutions to provide services and have premises anywhere in the EU and that it also was not in compliance  with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services).

Finally, on 6 October 2020, in its judgment on Commission v Hungary (Higher education) (C-66/18) ,which can be found here, the EU Court of Justice ruled that the law was incompatible with EU legislation. The Court also found that it was not in sync with World Trade Organization legislation relating to fair market access and, further, that it violated the provisions of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights protecting academic freedom and the freedom to conduct business.

This is not the first time that the European Court of Justice rules on Hungary’s laws as it also rendered a decision on 18 June 2020 regarding a 2017 law imposing restrictions on NGOs (the ACA article on the topic is available here.)

Having supported CEU all along, ACA is obviously very pleased with the Courts verdict. We do not have any information yet if the CEU intends to step up its activities in Budapest as a consequence of the ruling.

More information here.