Erasmus ban ‘regretful’ but MEPs agree the EU must safeguard academic freedom in Hungary

18 Jan 2024 | News

The European Parliament has rejected a call to bring Hungarian universities back into the Erasmus student and academic mobility scheme, with a large majority of MEPs insisting prime minister Viktor Orbán must make the required reforms first

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels for a meeting of the Council of the European Union in December 2023. Photo: European Union

The European Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected a bid by a small group of MEPs to remove a ban on certain Hungarian universities accessing Erasmus+ funds that was imposed due to rule of law concerns over their management structure. 

In a vote on Tuesday on the implementation of the student mobility programme, Slovenian MEP Milan Zver, a member of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), sought to introduce an amendment to work with the European Commission on lifting the ban. 

“The European Parliament […] calls for the creation of options based on fair, lawful and transparent procedures agreed with the European Commission to ensure Hungarian students, teachers, and researchers can fully benefit from the Erasmus+ programme and contribute to the broader goals of European educational and research cooperation,” said Zver’s amendment read. This was rejected by the Parliament. 

The EU banned more than 30 Hungarian institutes, including 21 universities, from receiving Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe funds in December 2022 over concerns about their autonomy from the government.

The structures of the universities have gradually been overhauled by government edict over the past few years, transferring their management to public trust foundations and placing a great deal of control in the hands of boards of trustees made up of members who initially were hand-picked by the government. 

For Zver, Parliament’s rapporteur on the Erasmus+ scheme, the ban punishes Hungarian students rather than the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

“At the moment, Turkish students have full access to the Erasmus+ programme, while some EU citizens have no access at all – those coming from Hungary, an EU member state, which is paying taxes into [the] EU budget,” he told Science|Business. 

“EU decision-makers should ask themselves: Why are Hungarian students paying for whatever Orbán is accused of, while Turkish students don't have to pay for what Erdoğan does?”, he added. 

Zver was supported by a small number of MEPS, mainly Hungarians from Orbán’s own Fidesz party. 

Sabine Verheyen, also a member of the EPP, said that Zver’s views do not reflect that of her party’s or the vast majority of MEPs. 

“I really regret that young Hungarian students can’t join the programme,” Verheyen said. “I would appreciate unlocking it, if there was just a signal of Orbán going back to [academic freedom] principles”.

Verheyen is frustrated by the narrative that the EU is to blame for the blocked Erasmus funds, rather than the actions of the Hungarian government. “It’s not the EU that is hindering students, but Orbán and his behaviour,” she said.

While students are suffering now, holding back from attempts to safeguard academic freedom in Hungary would ultimately be worse, said Verheyen. “I’m sorry when young students are affected, but in the long term they are more affected by the policies of Orbán. It’s more important for academic freedom in the long run to keep up the pressure. It’s not about party politics, it’s about rule of law, academic freedom.”

While the Erasmus+ ban was introduced at the end of December 2022, most Hungarian universities still have valid contracts until the middle of 2024 meaning the full effects of the ban are yet to be felt. 

Hungary’s tundra of frozen funds

The EU ban on Hungarian institutions accessing Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe funds is separate from a larger swathe of funds blocked due to various other concerns, such as rule of law, academic freedom, judicial independence, asylum rights and LGBTQ+ rights. 

In December, the European Commission found that changes made last May to Hungary’s judicial system were sufficient to allow it to unlock €10.2 billion in frozen cohesion funds. A further €21 billion remains blocked, some of it under the EU’s conditionality mechanism, introduced in 2021 to try to curb rule of law breaches among member states. 

The Commission’s announcement came just before EU leaders met to discuss the mid-term review of the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2017. That budget was vetoed by Orbán, who disagreed with a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine. 

For many in the European Parliament, this is an attempt by Orbán to blackmail the EU as leverage. In a resolution adopted today with 345 votes for and 104 against , MEPs condemned “systematic discriminatory practices against academia, journalists, political parties and civil society when allocating funds” in Hungary. 

They stated their intent to look into legal action to overturn the Commission’s decision to unblock the €10.2 billion, saying that all withheld funds should be treated as a single package and “no payments should be made if deficiencies persist in any area.” This would include the Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe payments. 

Verheyen thinks the fact Orbán has not even asked the EU about unblocking the Erasmus+ funds shows his disregard for Hungarian students. “If Orbán had a high interest in bringing students back in, why didn’t he negotiate with the Commission? she said. “He didn’t even ask to get it unlocked. Orbán each time is just trying to blackmail the EU.”

Freedom of research

MEPs also backed a resolution asking the Commission to put forward an EU act on the freedom of scientific research. This is in part inspired by what many in Brussels see as Orbán and Hungary undermining academic and scientific freedom through the establishment of the government-linked foundations to run the majority of the country’s universities.

A new, dedicated, legally-binding actshould create a starting point for the development of legal minimum standards for the freedom of scientific research through case law from European courts, including the Court of Justice of the European Union,” the draft text of the resolution says.

The Hungarian government appears resigned to the Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe ban, launching this week its own domestic alternative, ‘HU-rizont’. It has also launched a student mobility alternative called the Pannonia Programme.

HU-rizont will have a budget of just over €20 million (HUF8 billion) to support Hungarian researchers. An additional €15 million (HUF 6 billion) has also been set aside this year to support international researchers working in Hungary. The government has also promised to continue to support Hungarian universities that cannot access Horizon Europe funding. 

“All in all, this year we are spending an unprecedented HUF24 billion [€63 billion] to strengthen the international cooperation of Hungarian research,” said Balázs Hankó, state secretary for Innovation and Higher Education, announcing HU-rizont. 

But József Pálinkás, former education minister, former head of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the driving force behind the creation of the country’s National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NRDI), is sceptical of these domestic alternatives.

These programmes are a “marketing product” to show the Hungarian academic and scientific community that the government is willing to fund their participation in international collaborations, but that they cannot replace participation in EU programmes. “Even if you put money into these programmes, who will evaluate [research proposals]? Pálinkás said. “The government ministers, they simply don't understand that it's not only the money that is in question or which is at stake, but it is the competitiveness of Hungarian science that is at stake.”

Being unable to access Europe’s research and student mobility programmes is going to further undermine science in the country, which Pálinkás said has been deteriorating in recent years. 

By way of example, Hungary-based scientists won six European Research Council starting grants in 2007 and a further 11 between 2008 and 2012. Between 2019 to 2022, they won just three. 

“Me and others involved in the Hungarian research system and who worked to build up a competitive system, we have always made it very clear that we want the Hungarian scientists to compete on the European level,” said Pálinkás. “The heart of the problem is that the government is not discussing these matters with the academic community or universities,” he said. “They have come up with this HU-rizont idea and now they are too stubborn to admit that it is not a good idea.”

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