Based on the European Union’s recent decision, Hungarian universities maintained by foundations have been excluded from several EU-funded programs, including the Erasmus+ program which funds the studies of Hungarian university students at other universities throughout the EU. The best understanding of these events within the context of the ongoing press-war is that most likely, the Hungarian delegation and EU committee on the rule of law procedure came to an agreement, made a draft decision and presented it to the council.
However, the Commission added a certain point to the draft which had not previously been mentioned and which, accordingly, was not part of the agreement. And since according to the regulation of the procedure – which naturally was also drafted by the Commission – the Commission’s proposal can only be modified by the council with a qualified majority; in such a case there is therefore practically no chance for the Commission’s proposal to be modified by the council. In other words, what the Commission wants is what's going to happen.
And the Commission wants Hungary’s foundation-maintained universities to be excluded from EU support. This means that if everything remains as it is, Hungary has two options: either it can completely reform its system of publicly funded foundations maintaining universities, or it can lose out on major EU funding. This raises several issues.
The first problem is that of the double standard. Universities maintained by foundations aren’t a Hungarian invention; this model is utilized by many leading universities throughout the world – including in other EU countries which the Commission seems to have no problem with.
The second problem is one of trust. In the past year, it appeared that a successful, reliable process was coming to a close with Tibor Navracsics leading the Hungarian side. It seemed that we had just created a modus vivendi when the Commission swept that nascent modus vivendi right off the table. This raised serious doubts over whether it is truly possible for the EU and Hungary to maintain a fair relationship based on compliance with our agreements. After all, the Commission on one hand signaled with this that they can break agreements whenever, and on the other, that instead of coexistence and recognition of each other's different perspectives and values, the only thing they are open to is a state of complete submission. As a result, our trust in the EU, which wasn’t very strong to begin with, was severely shaken.
The third problem is a sovereignty problem. The question is: who decides how Hungarians organize their lives and where? For example, who decides what kind of model we use to operate our universities – Hungary’s government or the EU Commission in Brussels? The exclusion of the foundation model from EU programs is on one hand legally problematic since education is not an EU competence but one belonging to Member States – this element of our sovereignty legally cannot be withdrawn. On the other hand, its content is problematic: education is such an essential aspect for the life of a country that is not acceptable for an external force to make this decision instead of the legitimate political leadership and relevant bodies of a given state. In other words, the EU is restricting Hungarian sovereignty in a vital issue – and what’s more, unlawfully. And this is still true when the limitation of sovereignty is not done via dictates, but by much more sophisticated means – for instance by withholding financing.
The fourth problem is a democracy problem. The political leadership bestowed with the responsibility to make decisions were elected by the voters within a democratically competitive framework in Hungary. The political parties in the race presented their policies to the electorate and they in turn made a decision between those options. An essential element of those competing offers was the future of education: while Fidesz proposed the foundation model, the opposition supported the previous, state-run model. And even though the vast majority of voters put their faith in the former, the Commission believes that the minority opinion should be made a reality – making a mockery of democracy. It is no wonder that opposition politicians welcomed the Commission's move with open arms and immediately called upon the government to implement their idea – which only enjoyed minority support – instead of the existing, which had the majority of support.
The fifth problem is external intervention. The Commission’s move is clearly an attempt to influence voters through material means so that they do not vote for the governing parties in the upcoming elections. After all, the move would take away resources from university youth and professors while claiming that the Hungarian government is the reason for this and that the only way to get back those resources is if the opposition’s ideas are implemented in higher education. In other words, it sends a very clear message to university students, professors and their parents, essentially blackmail: if they vote for the opposition, they will get money, if they vote for the governing parties they won’t. This is such a drastic attempt at influence in domestic politics over a certain portion of Hungarian voters that it rivals the American campaign funds provided to opposition parties in the election.
The sixth problem is: what’s next? Have no illusions, the Commission – thereby supporting the European Parliament – has countless more ideas on where it could impose its will over the Hungarian government. You can already sense a foreshadowing of the next issue with the debate over the so-called “horizontal rights” and the child protection law. In short, in order for any Member State to have access to cohesion funds, it must fulfill certain “horizontal” conditions; if they fail to do so, they will not receive a single penny.
According to certain officials of the Commission, due to the child protection laws, Hungary is not fulfilling some of these horizontal conditions. And if we reach the point that the EU demands amendments to the Child Protection Act for Hungary to get access to EU funds – and another new demand cannot be ruled out by any means – then the EU elite would try to force their will on a much more crucial territory, going against the will of the voters. Moreover, they would try to overturn one of the cornerstone policies of the Orbán-government.
And this would clearly be an attempt to overthrow a democratic government from the outside – if we let it.
We hope of course that the government will not allow this to happen and will take the necessary steps. What could these be?
Most likely, what the Poles promised to implement in December 2021 in the event they do not receive EU funds. This is on one hand, the use of the veto applied to all issues, and on the other, the suspension of Hungarian payments to the common EU pool.
The veto is a legitimate tool offered to all Member States by the EU founding treaties; by utilizing it, Hungary is doing nothing more than making use of an available tool. And concerning the possibility of suspending payments, it is not sustainable for one party with payment obligations to the other to fulfill them, while the other refuses to fulfill their obligations.
First, of course, the erroneous council decision must be corrected and a new agreement must be reached. But we must draw a clear line between reasonable compromise and self-sacrifice for money – and we must be very cautious that we don't get pushed inadvertently from the former to the latter. In the case of the maintenance of universities, it seems the Commission is striving for this.
The author is an economist and political scientist
Photo: Ursula von der Leyen (MTI/EPA/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)