Hungary responds to EC infringement procedures

Analysis

Hungary has sent its responses to the European Commission within the context of ongoing infringement procedures regarding recently adopted laws on foreign universities and foreign-funded NGOs, Pál Völner, parliamentary state secretary at the Ministry of Justice, said at a press conference today, the deadline stipulated by Brussels.

On April 26, the European Commission (EC) initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary over amendments to its higher education law approved by lawmakers earlier that month. The legislation was widely criticized for its perceived targeting of the Central European University (CEU), founded by Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros, a persistent target of the Hungarian governmentʼs anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent months. The amendments triggered a wave of mass street protests in the spring.

The amendments to the legislation - which came to be known locally as the “lex CEU” - require foreign colleges and universities in Hungary to operate on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement and to have a campus in the country in which they are based. Accredited in the United States, CEU has just one campus, in Budapest; it has described the legislation as “discriminatory” and said that it “targets CEU directly.”

In its initial “letter of formal notice” in April, the EC said that “the law is not compatible with the fundamental internal market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment, but also with the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the Unionʼs legal obligations under international trade law.”

On July 13, the EC stepped up the infringement procedure, sending its “reasoned opinion” with respect to the amendments to the Higher Education Law and their compatibility with EU law. Hungary was given one more month to notify the Commission of measures taken to remedy the situation; if the response proves unsatisfactory, the EC may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.

NGO procedure moves to next step

Also on July 13, the EC launched a separate infringement procedure against Hungary over a new law on foreign-funded NGOs that it says fails to comply with EU law and “interferes unduly” with the rights enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, variously describing the legislation as “unjustified,” “disproportionate” and “discriminatory.”

The Hungarian legislation, adopted on June 13, requires NGOs that receive foreign funding of over HUF 7.2 million a year to specify that they are “organizations supported from abroad” in all publications, websites and press materials they disseminate. The legislation also established a reporting obligation for this funding, as well as sanctions for failure to comply with the lawʼs provisions.

The EC likewise gave Hungary one month to respond to the matter. If no reply to its formal notice is received, or if the observations presented by the Hungarian authorities in reply to that notice are considered unsatisfactory, the EC may move to the next stage of the infringement procedure, and send its “reasoned opinion.”

Völner asserted today that Hungaryʼs responses to the ECʼs concerns show that the restrictions it has criticized are indeed “necessary and proportional.”

“We canʼt do anything about the fact that the restrictions harm the interests of George Soros,” he said.

Besides targeting the liberal-leaning CEU, the government has also repeatedly criticized Soros - most recently through a highly controversial billboard campaign - for supporting pro-migration NGOs. Völner insisted that the disputes between Hungary and the Commission on the matters of higher education and the law on NGOs are of a political, rather than a legal, nature.

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