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Hungary’s move to oust Central European University ‘broke EU law’

Budapest, Hungary – Hungary’s legislation that prompted the Soros-founded Central European University to relocate from Budapest to Vienna is incompatible with both EU and World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations, according to an advisor to the top EU court.

Central European University forced out of Budapest

Frequently ranked as one of the top universities in Hungary before it was forced out, the Central European University founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros was at the heart of a years-long struggle for academic freedom in the country.

In March 2017, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government passed a new legislation – the so-called “Lex CEU” – making it more difficult for foreign institutions to operate in Hungary and revoking the university’s right to issue U.S. accredited degrees in the country.

The legislative amendment also required foreign-registered universities to operate in their country of origin, while institutions from outside the European Economic Area would only be allowed to stay in Hungary if an international treaty was signed with the home country.

Critics argued the move was directly targeting the Soros-backed CEU – which previously operated in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw before moving all its operations to the Hungarian capital in 1995 – and an attempt by Premier Viktor Orban to stifle academic freedom and voices of dissent. “We cannot operate legally in Hungary as a free, U.S. accredited institution. We are being forced out of a country that has been our home for 26 years”, CEU rector Michael Ignatieff declared shortly before the institution was effectively forced to move its operations to Vienna in November.

The Hungarian Prime Minister has since then adopted a set of measures to extend his control over other prominent academic institutions, including the flagship Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Hungary’s “Lex CEU” is contrary to EU law, says top lawyer

In a non-binding opinion released last week, the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union Julianne Kokott described the 2017 “Lex CEU” as “a means of arbitrary discrimination against higher education institutions established in third states” and said Hungary, according to EU law, must treat domestic and foreign universities equally.

“The requirement of an international treaty with the state of origin is contrary to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union”, the statement further reads. “That requirement constitutes a disproportionate restriction on the freedom to found and to operate educational establishments and on academic freedom”.

Although judges usually follow the opinions of the advocate general, they are legally not bound to do so. A final ruling on the matter from the EU’s top court is expected in the next two to four months.

Central European University as the frontline for academic freedom in Hungary

Hungarian-born American philanthropist and billionaire George Soros has long been the target of frequent – and often anti-Semitic – attacks from Orban, who has gone to great lengths to describe him as the public enemy n°1 plotting with EU bureaucrats to destroy Hungarian and European Christian culture with waves of migrants and liberal values.

Last January, Soros unveiled a 1 billion-dollar plan to fund a network of world-leading universities and NGOs to promote values of an open society and democratic and civic engagement, in a move observers saw as a way to “fight back” for academic freedom against authoritarian regimes, including in his native country of Hungary.

In a symbolic gesture, the liberal and progressive mayors of all V4 capital cities (Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw) chose the Budapest campus of CEU last December to sign the so-called “Pact of Free Cities”, in which they voiced their opposition to the “populist and nationalistic politics” of their respective national governments and vowed to coordinate their efforts to fight back against their country’s authoritarian tendencies and attempts to undermine the rule of law.

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