By Francesco Guarascio and Marton Dunai
BRUSSELS/BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The European Union’s top court said on Tuesday that Hungary breached EU law with its reform of higher education rules, which forced a university founded by George Soros to move most of its activities out of the country.
The ruling follows a complaint from the European Commission and is one of many issues in which the EU has clashed with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, accused in Brussels of a backslide on civil liberties, corruption and the rule of law.
Hungary’s justice minister said Budapest would implement the European Court of Justice ruling but reiterated that all schools must meet equal rules, and “on this the Hungarian government finds double standards to be unacceptable.”
“There is no need for mailbox universities,” she said.
Under the reform, passed in 2017, foreign universities in Hungary must also provide courses in their home countries, a provision that singled out CEU, which was exclusively based in Budapest. The ECJ said that was against EU law.
“The conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law,” the court said.
Central European University transferred the bulk of its courses out of Hungary to Vienna after a long legal battle between Hungarian-born Soros, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, and the government of Orban.
Soros said in a statement that the ruling came too late for Central European University to return to Budapest, where academic freedom remains on the wane due to government interference.
“The Hungarian government continues to trample EU law, with the latest victim being the world-renowned University of Theatre and Arts (SZFE)”, he added, referring to SZFE’s struggle against a perceived government crackdown.
Soros urged the EU to “make Hungary a test case” as it debates ways to force members to respect the rule of law, including tying EU financial resources to rule of law conditions, a prospect that has already provoked a standoff between Orban and Brussels.
CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said the university would probably establish some form of a “bi-campus operation” across the Austria-Hungary border, with details unclear.
He said CEU spent about 200 million euros on relocating to Vienna, a mighty task that put a huge burden on many families during the coronavirus pandemic, but said any compensation claims to Hungary would be “for another day.”
“We have the freedom to decide what we want to do and we will exercise that freedom,” Ignatieff told a press briefing. “The law has been overturned by the highest court in Europe. End of story.”
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Alison Williams, Tomasz Janowski and David Gregorio)