People in Budapest protest a draft law targeting Central European University, Hungary, April 4, 2017.

© Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

It was no surprise when the Central European University announced Monday that it’s being forced out of Hungary and will move to Vienna. The increasingly authoritarian Hungarian  government has spent the last year and a half making it difficult – if not impossible – for the university to operate.

More surprising, however, is the disturbing inaction of EU leaders and aspiring leaders in the European People’s Party (EPP), the pan-European political group to which Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz belongs.

It’s sad and shocking that one of Central Europe’s most prominent universities, founded by philanthropist George Soros and largely supportive of “open societies,” has been chased out without any tangible consequences. Despite all Europe’s talk about crossing so-called “red lines,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban’s government has yet again gotten away with assaulting basic European values and freedoms – this time, academic freedom.

The EPP had said the university’s continued operations in Hungary constituted one such red line and that stepping over it would make Fidesz’s membership in the pan-European group unwanted. Yet the response to the university’s leaving has been muted. EPP leader Manfred Weber expressed his disappointment that the Hungarian government couldn’t agree with the university on continued operations. But he merely passed the ball to the EU Court of Justice.

Weber and EPP should have acted forcefully to stop the Central European University’s closure in Hungary. Now they should, finally, expel Fidesz. Not doing so means shielding Orban and his party from the consequences of undermining democracy and academic freedom. 

The European Parliament did the right thing in September when it voted to censure Hungary and initiate Article 7 – a process that brings under scrutiny governments putting EU values at risk. Ultimately, it can lead to sanctions. But since then, the EU Commission and EU member states have become mired in political and procedural hesitations. For the Central European University, it’s clearly too little and too late.

The university’s move to Vienna is a sad and dark day for Hungary. It also speaks volumes about the ineffectiveness and sometimes even unwillingness of EU leaders to address fundamental rights in member states. This only enables further assaults on those rights and emboldens other states to follow suit.