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EU Appears to Stand by CEU, Vows to Investigate Controversial Law

But statements so far fall short of U.S. calls to suspend the legislation. 

12 April 2017

The European Commission has taken a significant first step toward censuring Hungary over the hastily passed education law that many believe specifically targeted the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), whose potential closure has also riled up Washington and led to massive protests. “We need to quickly complete a thorough legal assessment of [the new law’s] compatibility with the free movement of services and the freedom of establishment,” EC First Vice President Frans Timmermans said during a press conference in Brussels today, according to The Guardian.

 

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Budapest, protesting the new education law enacted by the country’s governing Fidesz party that, among other things, requires foreign universities to maintain a campus in their home countries (the United States in CEU’s case). Critics view the law as intentionally designed to shut down CEU, given that its founder, Hungarian-born millionaire and philanthropist George Soros, is a sworn enemy of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

 

“We’re urging the [Hungarian government] to suspend implementation of the law,” U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing on Monday, the same day when Hungarian President Janos Ader officially signed the law, Hungary Today writes.

 

The EC debate was initiated by a group of lawmakers in Brussels calling for disciplinary actions against the Hungarian government, according to Reuters. Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said he was “deeply concerned” by the law, which “may set an unwelcome precedent for the autonomy of academic institutions in Hungary.”

 

"This is a dirty little law. All it does is mark the government's least favorite NGOs with a yellow star," Akos Hadhazy, an opposition lawmaker, told Reuters, making a reference to the symbol worn by Jews in Nazi Germany.

 

In response to the international backlash, the government sent Education Minister Laszlo Palkovics to Brussels to defend the law. “We don’t want to have universities that are just issuing diplomas based on any kind of accreditation without any control,” Palkovics said, New Europe reported. Orban expressed similar views, Hungary Today writes, quoting him as saying that, so far, “CEU enjoyed an unfair advantage over Hungarian universities.”

 

For now, however, the EC has refrained from condemning the law outright, or invoking the  EU’s rule of law procedure to push Hungary to redraft the legislation, with Timmermans saying a full investigation first needs to take place.

 

“We need to be absolutely convinced before we start challenging a member state because we believe they are not in line with EU legislation,” he said, as quoted by The Guardian.

 

Some fear that an inquiry will lead nowhere and fall into a pattern of comparatively mild responses from Brussels to moves that critics say clearly demonstrate democratic backsliding.

 

 

 

  • The assessment of the law will be completed by the end of the month, Timmermans said, according to The Guardian. The penalties facing Hungary range from a fine for failing to uphold EU law, to a withdrawal of its EU voting rights.

 

  • Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern has already started negotiations to move CEU to Austria should the university close down in Budapest permanently, the Hungarian Free Press reports, citing the APA Austrian news agency.

 

 

  • Victor Ponta, a member of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies and former prime minister, said that he intends to propose a law similar to “Lex CEU,” in order to restrict the activities of foreign universities operating in Romania. This move might endanger some Hungarian institutions in the country, the Hungarian Free Press writes.

Compiled by Mate Mohos

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