Central European University (CEU) founder and honorary chairman, George Soros at the CEU Vienna Campus opening ceremony in Vienna, Austria, November 15, 2019. 

© 2019 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

I felt a sense of defiance in the air at the opening ceremony. As George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist who founded the CEU in 1991, said at the ceremony: “CEU has steadfastly defended the principle of academic freedom against concentrated attack by the corrupt government of Viktor Orban who was hellbent to destroy it. CEU’s epic struggle against the repressive regime generated worldwide support. That struggle is still ongoing.”

The CEU, considered one of the most prominent universities in Central Europe, has educated 17,000 students from more than 100 countries, many of whom have gone on to assume key public positions or become leading civil society members. Some of my own friends and colleagues are alumni who wouldn’t have been able to get a first-class academic education had it not been for CEU. In addition, the university contributes €24 million annually to the Hungarian economy.

Despite this, the Hungarian government went to extreme lengths to make it impossible for CEU to operate in Hungary. A 2017 law on foreign higher education institutions appeared to target CEU specifically; once the university had complied with the law’s onerous requirements, the government refused to sign the contract that would have enabled CEU to remain in Hungary. The campaign against the CEU is part of a broader authoritarian slide in the country.

The new European Commission should build on the steps taken in the last two years to hold Hungary accountable for breaching fundamental EU values. It should carry forward the so-called article 7 process – a political sanction mechanism – and make it clear that attacks on fundamental freedoms, including academic freedom, will affect Hungary’s access to EU funding.