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CEU still shifting to Vienna despite top judge’s backing

Image: Martchan, via Shutterstock

Judge indicates Hungarian law was ‘means of arbitrary discrimination’ against Central European University

The Central European University (CEU) has said it is going ahead with moving most of its activities from Budapest to Vienna, even though one of the EU’s top judges has indicated that the Hungarian legislation forcing the move is “not compatible with EU law and WTO [World Trade Organisation] law”.

On 5 March, the Court of Justice of the EU published a provisional opinion by advocate general Juliane Kokott on a case the European Commission brought against the Hungarian government over the legislation. Kokott proposed to the court that the Commission’s action should be upheld.

The case centres on a 2017 change to Hungarian law that meant higher education institutions with a legal base outside the European Economic Area could continue their activities in the country only if an international treaty existed between Hungary and the institution’s country of origin. It also required all foreign higher education institutions operating in Hungary to also offer education in their country of origin.

Kokott said this is incompatible with part of WTO law and contrary to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU—in the latter case because the law “constitutes a disproportionate restriction on the freedom to found and to operate educational establishments and on academic freedom”.

Hungary’s law “appears to be a means of arbitrary discrimination against higher education institutions” established by foreign countries, Kokott said.

CEU, which has a legal base in the United States, is the only institution affected by the change. It welcomed the judge’s opinion, but said it remained illegal for it to operate in Hungary while the country’s law remained unchanged.

A final EU court decision expected in the autumn would, if in keeping with Kokott’s opinion, force Hungary to change the law, but CEU said it was going ahead with its plan to begin accepting students to its new Vienna campus in September.

“Until the government withdraws the legislation, we have no choice but to proceed with plans to transfer all US degree instruction to Vienna,” CEU said.

The university said it would “never allow” the government to force it out of Budapest entirely, adding: “We will continue to maintain a vigorous public presence, with an Institute for Advanced Study, a Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, a Democracy Institute, our cognitive science labs and teaching in our Hungarian accredited programmes.”