The writer is rector of central european university
In 2017, viktor orbans fidesz majority in the hungarian parliament passed lex ceu to throw central european university out of budapest. yesterday, europes highest court threw out the law, declaring that it violated european human rights laws on academic freedom and university autonomy, eu laws on freedom of services and world trade organization rules guaranteeing freedom to operate a business.
The judgment comes late the university has already been forced to move most of its teaching to vienna but it is a landmark ruling that is bound to dissuade other european regimes from similar attacks on free institutions. it is also a watershed moment in europes fierce debate about whether to tie the 1.7tn recovery package to the rule of law. now eu governments cannot keep pretending that hungarys relation to the rule of law is unclear. its highest court has declared it in breach of fundamental rights.
For eu governments, the moment of truth has arrived. they should seize the moment to decide, this week, that states that repeatedly breach essential elements of european rule of law, as hungary has done, must return to the european path. if not, no funds.
If eu states fail to act this time, europes identity as a community grounded in the rule of law will suffer a fatal blow and the long slow slide towards authoritarianism in central and eastern europe could accelerate beyond the point of no return.
If you think this exaggerates, look at what has happened in hungary since 2017. because mr orbans attack on ceu was not stopped in time, his appetite for control has grown. in 2018, the countrys most distinguished academic institution, the academy of sciences, was stripped of its budget and autonomy. in 2019, the government began privatising the university system and placing government appointees on supervisory boards. this month, a colonel was placed in charge of the university of theatre and film arts, despite continuing protests by faculty and students.
All this in a country where free debate is stifled by a systematic takeover of independent media. close to 80 per cent of hungarys media are now in the hands of interests favourable to the regime.
The lex ceu saga is not just an eu affair. the university is accredited in the us and issues american degrees, although the current us administration and its ambassador in budapest did nothing to stop an ally from expelling an american institution. eu leaders, while embarrassed that a university was being thrown out of an eu state, ducked the challenge by claiming it was a us problem. actually, ceu is also accredited in europe and so remains an eu problem.
Because neither the eu nor the us stood up to mr orban, ceu became the only university, since the 1930s, to be expelled from a european state. this act of vandalism cost the university dear: a dislocating relocation for faculty, staff and students and nearly 200m of additional expenses. by contrast, ceu will stay in vienna, because austria understands that academic freedom requires the rule of law. austrias welcome is also a sign that it wants the capital to be a centre of academic excellence.
Now that lex ceu has been declared inapplicable in hungary, the university is free to decide what programmes it can operate in budapest. weve set up a democracy institute to maintain our research presence, along with our archives, library and institute for advanced study.thanks to the judgment, we can resume teaching us accredited degree programmes in budapest.
Ceu is proud that the european court of justice vindicated our battle for academic freedom and the rule of law. it would be intolerable, however, if the european commission and european council failed to hold mr orban to account. this is a watershed moment. eu leaders must enforce the values they were elected to defend.