(CN) – Hungary wrongly and unfairly drew up regulations that forced a university set up by American billionaire George Soros to move many of its classes to Vienna, a European magistrate said Thursday.
The magistrate’s nonbinding legal opinion for the European Court of Justice was the latest salvo in a fight between Hungary’s far-right government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and European institutions that accuse Hungary of becoming an authoritarian state under Orban’s leadership.
In 2018, the Central European University closed many programs at its campus in Budapest and opened a campus in Vienna. The university said changes to Hungary’s higher education rules in 2017 made it illegal for it to continue offering its American-accredited programs in Budapest.
Those changes to Hungary’s rules were unlawful and were designed to punish the Soros-funded university, according to Thursday’s legal opinion issued by Juliane Kokott, an advocate general for the Court of Justice, the Europe Union’s top court. Kokott is one of several magistrates who examine cases and provide the court’s judges with legal advice. Their opinions are not binding on the court, but the court typically follows their advice.
Hungary is embroiled in a wide-ranging legal and political fight with EU leaders over a series of laws passed since Orban came to power in 2010.
The European Parliament and the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, are taking legal action against Hungary. In September 2018, the European Parliament voted to initiate proceedings to punish Hungary, charging it had passed a number of laws that undermine the rule of law and violate democratic values and human rights.
Thursday’s legal opinion, though, was related to a case brought by the European Commission against Hungary that seeks to overturn regulations that targeted the Central European University and Soros.
Orban, like others on the far right, accuses Soros of using his money to fund liberal causes, such as support for refugees, that Orban says undermines Hungary. But his rhetoric also carries anti-Semitic tones. Soros, who was born in Hungary, is Jewish and he has accused Orban of anti-Semitic attacks.
Soros funds a number of pro-democracy initiatives and groups around the world, but his activism has become a subject of anti-Semitic smears and conspiracy theories.
In 2017, Hungary amended its law on higher education to require that universities from outside of the EU’s economic zone be approved by an international treaty signed with the Hungarian government and that any such foreign university offer the same courses it teaches in Hungary in its home country.
The changes were seen as targeting the Central European University, which offered American-accredited courses at its site in Budapest. The university is registered in New York but it has no campus there.
Kokott said the changes to Hungary’s law violated World Trade Organization laws, and by extension EU laws, that say foreign and national higher-education institutions must be treated equally.
Kokott said Soros’ university was the only higher education institution in Hungary that did not meet the new requirements.
The magistrate said the European Court of Justice does not typically enforce WTO rules but that it can do so when the European Commission charges an EU member of not complying with WTO rules.
Under WTO rules, which the EU has adopted, Hungary must treat foreign and national service providers equally, Kokott said. Instead, Kokott said the Hungarian law appeared to be “a means of arbitrary discrimination” against foreign institutions.
Kokott added that forcing a foreign university to be covered by an international treaty violates the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights by restricting academic freedom. Kokott also said the requirement to make foreign universities offer the same courses in their home country was discriminatory and a restriction on academic freedom.
In a statement, the university hailed the magistrate’s opinion as a vindication.
“The advocate general’s opinion affirms, in every detail, the case that CEU has been making” since 2017, the university said.
The university said it hopes the court will strike down the Hungarian law so it can once again offer American-accredited courses in Hungary.
The university said that since January 2019, it has been “illegal for us to enroll students in our US-accredited degrees.”
It added that until the Hungarian government “withdraws the legislation, we have no choice but to proceed with plans to transfer all US degree instruction to Vienna.”
The university, which has about 1,400 students, is not entirely gone from Budapest though. Students who were enrolled when Hungary changed the laws were allowed to finish their studies. It offers Hungarian-accredited courses and runs an Institute of Advanced Study, an Open Society Archives and a Democracy Institute.
The Hungarian government did not immediately reply a message seeking comment.
In its defense, Hungarian lawyers argued that the commission launched this legal challenge for political reasons and had breached its duty of independence and impartiality. Kokott dismissed that charge, saying the commission “does not have to state the reasons why it is bringing an action.”
Hungary also argued that WTO rules do not apply to nonprofit organizations, such as the Central European University. But Kokott shot that argument down, noting that Hungary’s laws also covered for-profit institutions.
Hungary further argued that the changes it made in 2017 to the higher education law were meant to ensure foreign-registered colleges operating in Hungary are run properly and offer quality classes.
But Kokott said it was not clear how the changes helped ensure “fraudulent activity” did not take place at a university or ensure an institution offers high-quality classes.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)