Tag Archives: university autonomy

Open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker

The letter below, addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, was written by Hans Eichel, co-founder and former chairman of G20 and former finance minister of Germany,  and Pascal Lamy, former European commissioner and president emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute. Hans Eichel and Pascal Lamy also represent Franz Fischler and Yannis Paleokrassas, both former European commissioners.

♦ ♦ ♦

Dear Mr. President Jean-Claude Juncker,

As signatories to this letter, we ask the European Commission to temporarily suspend payment of all EU funding to Hungary, with the exception of funding provided directly by the Commission (i.e. without the intermediary role of the Hungarian government).

Over recent years, the whole institutional and legal system in Hungary has been transformed in a way that makes it much easier to assign a substantial part of EU money directly or indirectly to certain business and political groups, no matter how detrimental this is for the Hungarian society, and thus also for attaining the objectives of the European Union.[1]

Key public institutions, such as the office of the prosecutor general and the constitutional court, have been de facto taken over by the ruling party, Fidesz.[2] The Constitution has been amended several times to serve the interests of Fidesz.[3]

Press freedom has been eviscerated, and the overwhelming majority of the media is now Fidesz-dominated.[4] Access to information has been seriously curtailed by several new laws.[5]

Universities have practically lost their independence as they have been put under the strict control of “chancellors” appointed by the government. (A notable exception is the Central European University in Budapest which the government has been trying to shut because it is still offering a home to academic freedom and critical thinking.[6])

Harassment and smothering of civil society organisations has been going on for years.[7] It is also telling that the Hungarian government has refused to join the EU’s key anti-corruption initiative, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.[8]

We fully agree with the following statement in the Commission’s Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances: “Respect for the rule of law is important for European citizens, but also for business initiative, innovation and investment, which will flourish most where the legal and institutional framework adheres fully to the common values of the Union. There is hence a clear relationship between the rule of law and an efficient implementation of the private and public investments supported by the EU budget.”[9]

More than 95% of public investment projects in Hungary receive EU co-financing. The Hungarian government announced[10] that it will use 2017 and 2018 to allocate most of the EU money available for the funding period 2014-2020, and is rapidly implementing this strategy. The purpose here is clear: to help Fidesz at the national elections in spring 2018, without any consideration of what will happen after 2018 when EU funding will be mostly exhausted. Such jerking of the economy is also extremely detrimental for business in general, the rapid disbursement leads to inefficient use of EU money, and greatly increases the risks of corruption. This brings a special urgency to the situation.

It is time to heed the Dutch ambassador to Hungary, Gajus Scheltema: “The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive. At the same time, we need to continue supporting underdeveloped areas – that’s solidarity. Economically Hungary still lags behind Western Europe, so we need to help. – But in such a way that both the Hungarians and the Dutch are satisfied. We need to make the system much more transparent, accountable, and monitored.”[11]

To emphasise the point: a temporary cessation is what this situation requires; all funding can and should be restored as soon as basic democratic freedoms are reinstated and corruption counter-acted. We strongly believe that this is also a pre-condition for continuing EU funding to less developed regions – which is indispensable for the future of the European Union – in the period following 2020 in light of growing resentment all over Europe about the inefficient and improper use of EU funds.

It is the Commission’s duty to protect the EU’s financial interests. The Commission should live up to its duty concerning Hungary without any further delay.[12]

We are looking forward to your reply as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Hans Eichel, Co-founder and former Chairman of G20, former Minister of Finance of Germany

Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner, President Emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute

also on behalf of

Franz Fischler, former European Commissioner

Yannis Paleokrassas, former European Commissioner

23 November 2017


[1] See, for example: “A Whiff of Corruption in Orbán’s Hungary,” Spiegel Online, January 17, 2017 http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/a-whiff-of-corruption-in-orban-s-hungary-a-1129713.html  “Vladimir Putin has been named the 2014 Person of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an award given annually to the person who does the most to enable and promote organized criminal activity.… Runners up to Putin this year were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović.” OCCRP, 2015, https://www.occrp.org/personoftheyear/2014/

[2] See, for example: “Hungary – Joint Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review,” by Transparency International Hungary, Transparency International, and K-Monitor Watchdog for Public funds, 21 September 2015, https://transparency.hu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Joint-Submission-to-the-UN-Universal-Periodic-Review.pdf

[3] See, for example: “Hungary’s Dangerous Constitution. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law,” October 2015, http://jtl.columbia.edu/hungarys-dangerous-constitution/ Fidesz has set the large controlling organizations and the independent branches of power to manual control. atlatszo.hu (member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network), 20 September 2014, http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/09/20/fidesz-has-set-the-large-controlling-organizations-and-the-independent-branches-of-power-to-manual-control/

[4] See, for example: “Freedom of the Press 2017, Hungary.” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/hungary

[5] See, for example: “New Civil Code: public fund contracts are to become inaccessible,”  Transparency International Hungary, 16.08.2012, http://www.transparency.hu/New Civil Code public fund contracts are to become inaccessible “The coming dark age of democratic governance in Hungary,” atlatszo, 08.05.2013, http://atlatszo.hu/2013/05/08/the-coming-dark-age-of-democratic-governance-in-hungary/“Further Restrictions on Freedom of Information in Illiberal Hungary,” Hungarian Spectrum, 05.07.2015, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/07/05/further-restrictions-on-freedom-of-information-in-illiberal-hungary/

[6] At Hungary’s Soros-Backed University, Scholars Feel a Chill. The New York Times, April 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/world/europe/hungary-george-soros-central-european-university.html

[7] See, for example: “Civil Society Europe briefing on the state of Civic Space and Fundamental Rights in Hungary,” April 2017, https://civil society europe. eu.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/cse-hungary-fact-sheet_april2017.pdf

[8] It is not necessary to create a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Website of the Hungarian Government, December 6, 2016, http://www.kormany.hu/en/ministry-of-justice/news/it-is-not-necessary-to-create-a-european-public-prosecutor-s-office  “European Public Prosecutor’s Office established without Hungary’s participation,” The Budapest Beacon, June 9, 2017, https://budapestbeacon.com/european-public-prosecutors-office-established-without-hungarys-participation/

[9] Reflection Paper on the Future of EU Finances. European Commission, 28 June 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/reflection-paper-eu-finances_en.pdf

[10] See: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+WQ+P-2017-002541+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=en

[11] Ambassador Scheltema: “We Mustn’t Keep a Corrupt Regime Alive.” Hungarian Spectrum, August 31, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/08/31/ambassador-scheltema-we-mustnt-keep-a-corrupt-regime-alive/

[12] See also: “Legal Grounds for the Suspension of EU Funding to Hungary Now,” Hungarian Spectrum, September 3, 2017, http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/09/03/legal-grounds-for-the-suspension-of-eu-funding-to-hungary-now/

November 28, 2017

Hungarian students demand autonomy of universities

The Orbán government wants to reform higher education so that it will advance the material well-being of the Hungarian nation. Its primary purpose should be to contribute to areas such as manufacturing and agriculture, to the production of physical products.

Last November I wrote about László Palkovics, the latest undersecretary in charge of higher education, who announced early in his career as a member of the government that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.” After reading a long interview with the man, I came to the conclusion that Palkovics was planning to transform Hungarian higher education into one “huge engineering school.”

It seems that the presidents of Hungarian universities had the same misgivings about Palkovics’s “reforms” as I did. The Hungarian Conference of University Presidents (Magyar Rektori Konferencia) pointed out “the flaws of a concept that concentrates exclusively on economic matters.” As usual, the presidents’ objections were ignored. By mid-April rumors circulated that a large number of subjects taught at the bachelor’s level would be eliminated from the course offerings. “Communication” and “international studies” were prime targets; the government wanted to get rid of them as undergraduate majors. Vh.hu seemed to know that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade wasn’t happy about the proposed elimination of the study of international relations, which usually attracts very bright students. After all, some of these young people contemplate a diplomatic career.

On the afternoon of April 17 the government at last made its new plans for higher education public. Isn’t it interesting that momentous decisions that the government suspects will meet with resistance are usually released late on Friday afternoon? The hope, I assume, is that by Monday the outrage will subside. Well, it didn’t work out that way this time, especially since the document indicated that not only would certain social science fields, like international relations, no longer be available for B.A. students but that the very survival of the faculty of social sciences was at stake.

Today students and faculty members of several universities met in “forums” to discuss the government document. First I heard about the forum held by Eötvös Lóránd Tudományegyetem (ELTE) students and professors of the Faculty of Social Sciences. A few minutes later I learned that other universities were joining the “revolt.” The revolt continued on to the Budapest Műszaki Egyetem (MBE/Budapest Engineering School), where László Palkovics was holding the fort against irate students who accused him of not knowing what he was talking about.

Given the centralized nature of Hungarian higher education, I suspect that this decision would affect all universities and colleges, although at the moment the talk is only about ELTE, Corvinus, and the Catholic University. The government’s plans, by the way, are not based on financial considerations. As it now stands, students who want to major in international relations must pay their own way, so the government saves no money whatsoever by getting rid of the discipline. The reason for the decision is most likely political. The Orbán government doesn’t like the way ELTE and other universities teach the subject. Fidesz has no problem with offering a major in international relations at the undergraduate level at the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (NKE/National Civil Service University), where the regime educates its own elite. By the way, some people call NKE “the university for future janissaries.”

Not that I’m keeping fingers crossed for Viktor Orbán and his government, but I thought that perhaps in the last few months they had learned a thing or two, that they would tamp down their zeal for reform and stop annoying people at every turn. I can assure Mr. Orbán that it is dangerous to push students too far. Look at what happened in 1956 when forums were held at ELTE, BME, and Szeged and a few days later Mátyás Rákosi was gone. Orbán’s government is teetering at the moment. In his place I wouldn’t tempt God.

The protest at ELTE’s faculty of social sciences began on Facebook, and thousands signed up to attend a meeting today at 6 p.m. A list of five demands was ready by mid-morning.

1. We demand the autonomy of universities. We demand free choice of university and majors.

2. There is a need for specialists with a knowledge of the social sciences, of the European Union and international relations.

3. In the 21st century it is not the state that decides the future professions of people. It is not the state that decides what specialty exists and what doesn’t. The state cannot forbid any specialty or monopolize it for the university of the government.

4. The impact studies behind the decisions should be made public. We demand transparency, discussion, and professionalism.

5. With the elimination of these majors the government goes against international and European trends, undermines our future, and completely ruins the possibility of Hungary’s success in the world.

At this point the Ministry of Human Resources tried to calm the situation and claimed that nothing has been decided yet, that it was the opposition parties who were responsible for whipping up emotions against the government. The ministry insisted that “before the May introduction of the decisions there will be an opportunity for all affected by the new system to express their opinions.” Unfortunately past experience teaches us that such promises are not worth the paper they are written on. The ministry explained that the changes to be introduced “serve the interest of the students” and “strengthen the effectiveness of teaching.” The students not surprisingly don’t seem to agree.

This morning at ELTE the professors, instead of giving their scheduled lectures, used class time for a discussion of the planned changes. It was during these student-teacher discussions that they came up with their five demands. Moreover, the university administration is on their side. Both the president and the dean of the social science faculty were present and made speeches at the “forum” held this afternoon.

The engineering students also gathered for a discussion, and again they seem to be backed by the faculty and the administration. The government, though generally pro-engineering, wants to abolish the teaching of design engineering. László Palkovics, who is an engineer and who actually taught at BME, was present and the students gave him a hard time. One student point blank asked him whether he has any idea what design engineering is all about. The students wanted to know why he thinks that the work of design engineers is superfluous. The best he could come up with was that design engineers earn 100,000 a month less than other engineers. As usual, the claim is not true, or at least a company manager who was present said that in fact on average they are more highly paid than their colleagues.

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

MTI / Photo: Zsolt Szigetvári

After the forums were over the ELTE students marched to BME, and from there a fairly large crowd proceeded to the building of the ministry of human resources with the promise of returning if the ministry doesn’t withdraw the plans by Wednesday. I have the feeling that in the interim other universities will join the ELTE and BME crowd, but I doubt that a complete withdrawal of the “concept” is in the offing. In his speech at the forum the president of ELTE expressed a modest expectation. He said that he is hopeful that the international relations major might be saved. But, let’s face it, this is not enough. Indeed, the autonomy of the universities should be restored. That will not happen as long as the Orbán regime is in power, but I very much hope that a total overhaul of Hungarian higher education will take place after the fall of Viktor Orbán.

Yesterday there was an interview with Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist who with László Solyóm, former chief justice of the constitutional court and president of the republic, crafted the constitution that functioned well until in 2012 the second Orbán government replaced it with its own. In the interview Tölgyessy said something that caught my imagination. The Hungarian people are rarely aroused to revolt. They are fine with practically any regime so long as it leaves their private spheres alone. But when the government forces itself upon them by wanting to change their lives, then Hungarians stand up and say no to their overlords. János Kádár knew that. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, wants to change everything, including his subjects. Tölgyessy is sure that in the long run Orbán’s plans will fail.