In face of ‘mortal threat’ European Parliament launches a permanent forum to protect academic freedom

29 Nov 2022 | News

Forum is to highlight the extent of the threat by conducting an annual analysis of the limitations put on academics and scientists, and will debate new policies and laws aimed at safeguarding academic freedom in the EU

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola speaking at an event organised by the Science and Technology Options Assessment panel on 28 November. Photo: Eric Vidal / European Union 2022 / European Parliament

The European Parliament has launched a permanent forum to debate new policies and laws to protect academics in the EU against interference from government or other sources, after experts raised the alarm over the erosion of academic freedom in Europe.

The European Parliament Forum for Academic Freedom was announced on Monday at an event organised by the Parliament’s STOA panel for the future of science and technology. The forum will expose the extent of the threat to academic freedom by monitoring limitations being imposed on academics and scientists across all of Europe.

“The EP forum for academic freedom, in partnership with academia shall produce on an annual basis a truly independent report on the state of play of academic freedom across Europe,” said Parliament president Roberta Metsola.

German MEP Christian Ehler is behind the push to establish the forum, which is part of a broader agenda for the STOA panel to re-establish the role of science in legislative debates. The panel was launched in 1987, but has become more prominent in recent years thanks to former MEP Paul Rübig who helped establish a science media hub.

Ehler outlined his plans for STOA and for academic freedom in an interview with Science|Business earlier this year. Back then he said the Parliament should “muscle up” and turn STOA into a think tank that plays a double role of “arbiter and watchdog” for science and academia in Europe.

Speaking at the launch of the academic freedom forum on Monday, Ehler did not mince words. “The erosion of academic freedom in Europe is a mortal threat to our common European future,” he said.

Since setting out his plan for strengthening academic freedom in the EU, Ehler has worked on building up political backing. The launch on Monday was attended by a who’s who of policymakers and representatives of academia, including Netherlands’ education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, the secretary general of the European University Association Amanda Crowfoot, and the CEO of France’s CNRS Antoine Petit.

EU commissioner for education, research and innovation Mariya Gabriel gave a speech via video link. She vowed the Commission will work with the Parliament’s forum to advance work on consolidating academic freedom in the EU. “The Commission will continue exchanges and coordination with the European Parliament and the STOA panel,” she said.

Eroding academic freedom

According to the latest edition of the Academic Freedom Index, published in March 2022 by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, academic freedom has declined substantially around the world.

In Europe, Hungary and Poland have been singled out as the worst examples of countries where governments try to interfere with academia, but Ehler and other MEPs, as well as university representatives are concerned about eroding freedoms in academia across Europe, despite recent EU and national initiatives to aimed at protecting academics and scientists.  

Article 13 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights does mention academic freedom, but it has no legal teeth. In 2017, the Hungarian government ignored the charter and introduced legislation that ultimately forced the Central European University (CEU) to move from Budapest to Vienna over political disagreements between prime minister Viktor Orbán and the university’s founder, billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Hungarian government violated EU law in the CEU case, but the effects of the Hungarian legislation were already irreversible.  

Since then, EU policy makers have been struggling to find ways to safeguard academic freedom across all member states. In 2020, EU research ministers signed the Bonn declaration on academic freedom, while ministers of the European Higher Education Area signed a joint statement on academic freedom. The European Commission has also included academic freedom in its policy agenda for the renewed European Research Area (ERA).

The Parliament argues there should be a binding legal obligation for member states to respect a list of principles that would constitute a minimum threshold for ensuring academic freedom in its many forms – from government interference to freedom of speech on university campuses – is being safeguarded. 

“If you look to the legal realities of the [European Charter of Fundamental Rights] it is not binding, it is not the platform to really to protect academic freedom in Europe anymore,” said Ehler.

More action at EU level

Kurt Deketelaere, a scholar of EU law and secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) said a stronger legal basis for academic freedom is needed at EU level. He criticised the Commission for “shying away from the topic and from the responsibility” by pointing out that higher education is a competence of member states.

This raises the question whether the EU needs to upgrade its basic treaty to include academic freedom. “We cannot leave academic freedom in the hands of national governments alone,” Ehler said.

However, Deketelaere said that at least in the case of CEU, the Commission could have taken legal action against Hungary on the basis of international law to which the EU had signed up. “The Commission can also act in favour of academic freedom on the basis of the present treaty,” he said.

Moving forward, the Parliament will use the academic freedom forum to conduct “robust and well informed policy debates” on the issue, said Metsola.

The forum will help “this house entrusted with the responsibility of defending the rule of law and fundamental European values of freedom and democracy to continue to legislate appropriately and timely on safeguards to academic freedom while relying on trustworthy evidence,” Metsola said.

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