EU’s blocking of Erasmus and Horizon Europe funds to 21 Hungarian universities over rule of law concerns has caught many unaware. The Hungarian government says it has done what it was agreed to address these issues
The Hungarian government has described the EU decision to freeze Erasmus and Horizon Europe funding to 34 higher education and cultural institutions over rule of law concerns as “unacceptable and intolerable”.
Gergely Gulyás, minister of Hungary’s Prime Minister's Office, said today at a press conference that if no agreement can be reached with the EU, Hungary will take the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, according to Hungarian online publication Index.
The EU told the Hungarian government it was freezing Erasmus and Horizon Europe funding to institutions that have been transferred into public trust foundations – including 21 of the country’s universities - on 22 December 2022.
But the news was only first reported by Hungarian publication Népszava on Monday, January 9.
Gergely Bőhm, head of the president's office at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told Science|Business that the ban on Erasmus and Horizon funding seemed to come out of nowhere.
“The effects will of course be detrimental if this decision is not reversed, since this will most likely weaken the research capacity of many large universities in Hungary, among them quite a few successful in retaining EU funding,” he said.
“In some cases, this will result in the transfer of funds to other Hungarian institutions or others outside the country, and will also result in sheer loss of funding. I hope the current regulation will not be sustained since it just weakens the intellectual base of the country that will surely not advance any goal the Commission would have,” Bőhm said.
The decision to axe Horizon Europe and Erasmus funding is linked to the EU’s rule of law conditionality regulation and to concerns that the public trust foundations are too closely aligned to the Hungarian government, creating conflicts of interest.
Gulyás suggested that any concerns raised by the European Commission over these issues had been resolved and Hungary had received no request to legislate against politicians being members of the governing bodies of the public trust foundations.
This is not the view of the European Commission. The dispute dates back to 27 April last year when the conditionality regulation was triggered against Hungary.
In the negotiations that followed, 17 remedial measures were agreed which Hungary was supposed to implement by November 19, to prove to the EU that its rule of law concerns had been addressed.
But in mid-December, the EU Council of Ministers published an implementing regulation to freeze 55% of cohesion funds destined for Hungary, amounting to €6.3 billion. It also prohibited Hungary’s public trust foundations from accessing Erasmus+ or Horizon Europe funds, in line with a proposal from the European Commission. However, this prohibition was dressed up in legal speak and the words “Erasmus” and “Horizon” do not at any point appear in the implementing regulation.
Balazs Ujvari, a spokesman for the European Commission, told a press briefing on Thursday (11 January) that improving transparency over the use of EU funds by Hungary’s public trust foundations has been a part of exchanges between the Commission and Hungary since the end of April, when the conditionality regulation was triggered.
One of the remedial measures the Commission asked Hungary to address related to these foundations. Ujvari said that a new law introduced in Hungary on November 1 makes it easier for senior political executives to get positions on the boards of public trust foundations. This is the reason the Commission did not feel that Hungary had fully and adequately remedied concerns about the foundations. That informed the Council’s subsequent decision to cut public trust foundations out of Horizon Europe, Ujvsari said.
Both the Commission and the Hungarian government said they are willing to continue negotiations.
Erasmus and Horizon Europe agreements signed prior to December 15 are unaffected by the decision, but fresh agreements are frozen.
Christian Ehler MEP told Science|Business that the freezing of funds is not in itself a move to safeguard academic freedom, but rather shows to what extent academic freedom has already been significantly undermined by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his administration.
“Mr Orbán brought universities under political control by installing these trusts which significantly call into question the institutional autonomy of the universities. We cannot accept this in the EU,” Ehler said.
“Funding is the strongest leverage the EU has to force a change in Hungary, so in general the approach to protect the EU budget is the best way we have to push for the restoration of the rule of law as well as academic freedom in Hungary.”
Freezing Erasmus and Horizon Europe funds to the 21 Hungarian universities would be a huge financial blow. Several of the universities have received millions in grant money from EU research programmes since 2014, as shown in the table below. Data are not available for all of the universities.
Ehler said that the blame should not fall on the EU, but rather Orbán’s government for failing to protect the country’s universities, researchers and students.
“This government is fully aware of the consequences of its policies and goes ahead anyway. The situation is a consequence of Mr Orbán's attack on democracy, the rule of law and other European values like academic freedom,” he said.
If there was another way for the EU to support universities, researchers and students despite the problems related to the legal structure of the institutions at which they work and study, he would support that, Ehler said
“[They] did not ask for this and it is not fair that they now suffer but that is exactly the nature of the situation created by Mr Orbán – he does not want it to be fair.”