Hungarian ministers head to Brussels as dispute over EU block on funding for R&D and student exchanges heats up

19 Jan 2023 | News

Students and researchers are increasingly concerned about the impact of universities in Hungary being locked out of Horizon Europe and Erasmus programmes over rule of law concerns

Judit Varga, Hungary’s justice minister, and Tibor Navracsics, minister for regional development, will travel to Brussels next week for talks with European budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, after news that the EU has frozen Erasmus and Horizon Europe funding to over 30 Hungarian higher education and cultural institutions over rule of law concerns sparked off a wave of reaction in Budapest and Brussels.

Navracsics also told the Hungarian podcast Partizán he would be meeting the research commissioner Mariya Gabriel, but this was not confirmed to Science|Business by a Commission spokesman, who only mentioned discussions with Hahn.

The EU moved to freeze funding to institutions that have been turned into ‘public trust foundations’ in mid-December, over concerns about transparency and academic freedom. Since 2021, the Hungarian government has brought 34 institutions under the control of these trusts, appointing allies of prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his political party Fidesz, to their management boards.

Sebastian Dahle of Eurodoc, an international federation bringing together associations of doctoral candidates and early career researchers, said he is worried about the impact of the funding freeze on young researchers. While it is good to see the EU moving to ensure basic rights, European values and academic freedom, “The exclusion, particularly from the Erasmus+ programme, is affecting mainly early career researchers, which we find alarming and we insist on finding measures of relief for the individual young researchers,” Dahle said.

Balázs Krabácz, president of Hungary’s Erasmus Students Network (ESN) said the news came as a shock to him, and the impact could be severe. “I think it is a terrible decision from the EU’s point of view,” he told Science|Business.

“The Erasmus programme helps to build bridges between the countries, not just for the students but for university teachers and others. By cancelling this opportunity, they are hurting the people they have been trying to attract in the past years. It is really counterproductive.”

Last year, 20,000 Hungarian students participated in exchanges, and of the 15 universities that ESN works with, two thirds are affected by the funding freeze, Krabácz said.

Mandate for life

Hungary claims there is nothing unusual about politicians sitting on university boards and it is a norm around Europe.

However, Thomas Estermann of the European University Association (EUA) said the way in which Hungarian public trust foundations are constituted sets them apart. “What is important is who are the people who sit on the boards, who decides who these people are, and what are their competences,” he told Science|Business.

“The specificity of Hungary is that these foundations have the final competences on all issues related to universities. Additionally, the people in these bodies are exclusively selected by the government and they have a mandate for life. It means that any change of a member is decided by this body itself. You won’t find that anywhere else in Europe,” he said.

EUA regrets the effects the EU’s decision will have on Hungary, but the onus is on Orbán’s government to resolve the situation. “There is actually a very achievable solution: if the Hungarian government would make slight adaptations to the legal constructions of these foundations, it would be resolved,” Estermann said.

The problem is, the longer talks go on, the bigger the impact will be, Estermann said, adding, “The situation could be resolved relatively quickly as the [Hungarian] government can change legal constructions in quite a straightforward way due to its two-thirds majority in parliament.”

Erasmus and Horizon Europe grant agreements signed before 15 December are unaffected by the freeze, which means that the impact of the decision will not be immediate. But the longer the funds are withheld, the closer it will get to Erasmus grants needing to be renewed and the more researchers will miss out on opportunities to apply for funding.

In advance of his meetings in Brussels, Navracsics is reported by the government-leaning newspaper Magyar Nemzet to have written to Hahn and Gabriel asking for clarification and saying the decision “violates Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights” by making programmes, research and training impossible, and adversely affecting institutions and academic staff. “The decision destroys decades of international professional cooperation and limits the freedom of scientific life,” Navracsics letter is quoted as saying.

The Hungarian government’s apparent shock reaction to the funding freeze was despite the fact that the EU has been warning Hungary to reform its public trust foundations since 27 April last year.

The EU is concerned the public foundation trusts are too closely linked to the government. As a case in point, both Varga and Navracsics sit on the governing board of foundations.

The other concern relates to the transparency of the use of funds awarded to universities that are governed by these foundations, hence the freezing of Erasmus and Horizon Europe money.

Blocking Horizon and Erasmus funding is part of wider measures placed on Hungary under the EU’s rule of law conditionality regulation, which also includes a freeze on 55% of cohesion funds destined for Hungary, amounting to €6.3 billion.

“We will not allow students to be the victims of any decision by Brussels,” Orbán said last Friday, in response to the EU’s move. His administration has a history of using the EU as a scapegoat to distract from domestic issues, running anti-Brussels billboard campaigns on a regular basis in the past decade or so. He appears to have leapt on this EU decision, which on the face of it targets innocent students and researchers, as another way to score points against Brussels.

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