President Áder signs higher education law

April 10, 2017

Delaying his decision until the last possible moment, President János Áder signed the controversial higher education bill, better known as Lex CEU, into law late Monday.

Áder’s decision, which could effectively close the doors of Central European University (CEU) after 26 years in Budapest, was accompanied by a written explanation, something traditionally reserved for bills which the president sends back to Parliament or to the Constitutional Court. In the announcement Áder writes,

“In the last days, different constitutional concerns have come up regarding the amendment to the [higher education] law. In the time available to me I have examined the constitutionality of the law and its compliance with international agreements. I have determined that the amendment does not infringe on the right to study and to teach as recorded in article X of the Fundamental Law. It also does not infringe on the provision of the Fundamental Law which ensures the autonomy of higher education institutions concerning the content and methods of research and teaching.”

Áder acknowledged that “the fast — though appropriate for the provisions of the house rules — acceptance and imposition of the conditions of the two new laws provoked resentment in many people,” and he urged the government to “immediately begin negotiations with the involved parties in the interests of the implementation of the new legal provisions.”

As CEU leadership has emphasized openly since the higher education bill was first proposed two weeks ago, the university repeatedly sought negotiations with government officials after rumors began circulating early this year that the government might be planning a crackdown. CEU’s request went unanswered, and government officials have since claimed that they did not consult with the university’s leadership before submitting the law because there “wasn’t time for that.”

The language of the law contains provisions that uniquely affect CEU’s status in Hungary, leading many to believe the law was specifically tailored to force the university to shut its doors. The Hungarian government’s recent crusade against civil organizations and NGOs, especially those which receive some funding from Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, has led to suspicions that the changes to the higher education law are merely another step in the Fidesz government’s attempt to rid the country of such organisations. CEU was founded by Soros in 1991.

Despite conditions outlined in the new law which appear impossible for CEU to fulfill, Áder attempted to assuage fears that freedom of education is under threat in Hungary by writing in his statement that”not one iota of doubt should remain for anyone that the conditions for the high-level work being done at foreign universities in Hungary will continue to be ensured.”

The law can still find its way before the Constitutional Court, either by the gathering of 50 signatures of MPs in Parliament, or by being sent by Ombudsman László Székely. The law may also be contested in the Constitutional Court by CEU itself, subsequent to a decision by an intermediate court.

The bill, first submitted by Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog on February 28, was passed only one week later, last Tuesday, by a 123-38 vote in the National Assembly. The compliance deadlines outlined in the bill were made more stringent through modifications imposed last Monday, and an emergency procedure was approved which accelerated the process of the bill’s passage.

Several large protests against the legislation have taken place in Budapest and other cities around the world since the bill was first proposed, culminating in a rally of an estimated 80,000 people in the streets of Budapest on Sunday. Many demonstrators called on President Áder to veto the law, and some expressed a hope that such large crowds would convince him to reconsider the decision of the National Assembly.

However, Áder is not known for showing dissension within his party when it comes to politically significant decisions. In his previous five-year term as president, he sent laws back to Parliament or forwarded them to the Constitutional Court only a handful of times.

A new round of protests is planned for Wednesday at Budapest’s Hősök Tere (Heroes’ Square). The declared theme of the demonstration is opposition to a bill recently submitted by Fidesz which would, among other things, require all NGOs which receive more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000) annually from foreign sources to register themselves with the government as “foreign funded organizations.” Critics see the bill as an attempt to clamp down on civil society.

CEU sympathizers are sure to join demonstrators against the NGO bill at Wednesday’s protest.