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Judgement In, Damage Done in Hungary

EU Action Needed to Reverse Rule of Law Breakdown

People in Budapest protest a draft law targeting Central European University, Hungary, April 4, 2017. © Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) last week ruled the Hungarian government’s 2017 law on higher education violated European Union law. The law put onerous requirements on all foreign universities that operate in Hungary but so obviously targeted the Central European University (CEU) that it was dubbed “Lex CEU.”

Though welcome, the ruling starkly demonstrates the limits of the EU response to the systemic rule of law breakdown in Hungary. For CEU, which moved most operations and students to Vienna last year, the ruling came too late. CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff has said the university is not planning to return to Budapest.

It is not the first time a CJEU ruling against Hungary has failed to remedy the harm. In 2012, the court ruled the 2011 forcible early retirement of some 300 judges in Hungary violated EU law. By then, 300 new judges handpicked by a politically compromised National Judicial Office were already in place.

The damage was already done, and the government could even boast about complying with the ruling when it paid nominal compensation to the fired judges, instead of reinstating them, as per the ruling.

EU court rulings are crucial to establish that states have overstepped their powers. But it is also increasingly clear that the court cannot act alone.

The EU Commission should be more assertive in requesting urgent measures to the court that allow it to suspend the application of laws until it produces a final ruling. It should also act more quickly to ensure states are in compliance with the letter and the spirit of its rulings.

To date, the Commission and Council have dragged their feet in taking action against Hungary. That failure to act has allowed interference with judicial independence and academic freedom, among other attacks on democracy, to persist and be exported to other EU countries, like Poland, to the detriment to all EU citizens.

The recent CJEU ruling shows the urgency with which the Council and the Commission should act to put more effective sanctions in place. That includes increasing their scrutiny and linking EU funds to respect for rule of law.

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