On 4 April 2017, the Hungarian Parliament adopted amendments to the country’s Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, in an attempt to force the Central European University (CEU) out of the country. The attack on CEU, based in Budapest and accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, fits into a broader picture of violated academic freedoms and an even broader one of a state in constitutional capture, in which fundamental rights in general are in jeopardy. This paper explores the controversial law, explains its biased nature targeting CEU only, provides possible reasons why the government wishes to shut down Hungary’s most prestigious university, describes how political support for the crusade against CEU was generated by the government, draws lessons to be learned and suggests desirable European responses.
The paper argues that the EU’s approach of ‘keeping problem children in the family’ has proved to be dysfunctional in recent years. The argument that EU action to sanction a member state – e.g. by triggering Article 7 TEU – might have the opposite effect or be exploited by those wishing to arouse anti-EU sentiments is not convincing either. Brussels has already been blamed for a plethora of ills, and stepping out of the EU will be on Hungary’s agenda in any event once the country ceases to be a net beneficiary. The government is already paving the way for this move by fostering pro-secession sentiments. The paper argues that backsliding by a member state in the rule of law is a European matter and that European institutions must react accordingly by employing diplomatic and legal sanctions against any country undermining the EU’s foundational values. Instead of watching an autocratic regime reinforce itself with EU money, they should make use of all available instruments, including the power of the purse – which is seemingly the only convincing tool available for disciplining an illiberal government of a net beneficiary country.
Petra Bárd is Associate Professor, Eötvös Loránd University and Visiting Professor, Central European University (CEU).