BRUSSELS -- The European Union's highest court ruled Tuesday that changes by Hungary to its law on higher education which effectively forced a university founded by George Soros to leave the country weren't in line with EU law.
The European Court of Justice ruled against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, saying in the ruling that “the conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law."
At the heart of the conflict is the fate of the Central European University established by Soros, a Hungarian-American financier. Under pressure from Orban, it had to relocate most of its main activities to Vienna from Budapest, where it had been operating since the early 1990s.
Orban has been a vocal critic of Soros for years, arguing that the billionaire philanthropist is intent on undermining European values with his liberal views on migration, claims Soros has denied. Orban’s ideological aim of creating an “illiberal state” is also in contrast with Soros’ ideal of an “open society.”
Soros called the ruling “a victory for the fundamental values of the European Union." But he acknowledged it would make little difference for the university.
“The decision comes too late for CEU," Soros said. "We cannot return to Hungary, because its prevailing laws don’t meet the requirements of academic freedom.”
Hungary's justice minister, Judit Varga reacted to the decision by saying that any EU court ruling would only be applied “in accordance with the interests of the Hungarian people" and said CEU was seeking to get advantages other Hungarian universities didn't have.
Among the legal changes Hungary imposed was tying the operation of foreign universities in Hungary to a bilateral agreement between the Hungarian government and the universities’ country of origin. Foreign universities were also compelled to carry out educational activities in their home countries. That forced the CEU to move to Vienna.
The EU court ruled that by imposing such conditions, “Hungary has failed to comply with the commitments" under the framework of the World Trade Organization and acted in contravention of the provisions of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In light of Orban's views on Soros, the amendments to the academic rules were widely seen as targeting CEU. The EU Commission launched an infringement procedure in April 2017 against Hungary in the wake of the changes. It subsequently referred Hungary to the Court of Justice in December 2017.
Under such a ruling by the ECJ, the member state is legally forced to immediately comply with the Court’s judgment, and if it refuses, the EU Commission can seek to fine it.
Justice Minister Varga told state news agency MTI that “all universities in Hungary must comply with the legislation equally."
She said the law affects dozens of foreign institutions operating in Hungary, but most of them had no problem complying with this legislation, referring to the CEU as a “mailbox" institution.
The European Parliament's top official dealing with Hungary welcomed the ruling. Greens MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield said the ruling from the Luxembourg-based court “ruled on what should be clear in any European democracy: that measures to limit academic freedom are incompatible with EU law. Forcing out a university is undemocratic, it goes against European values and now it’s been ruled as illegal."
She added that it “should send a warning to Viktor Orban that it’s time to step back from the brink of autocracy and reverse the Hungarian government’s undemocratic path.”
Edith Balazs contributed from Budapest, Hungary.