Hungary has sent its response to the European Commission regarding the infringement procedures launched because of Hungary’s laws on NGOs financed from abroad and on foreign universities, a justice ministry official said on Monday.
Last month, the EC stepped up an infringement procedure against Hungary for failing to bring its amended higher education act into compliance with European Union law. It also launched an infringement procedure against the country over a law requiring civil groups to register with a court as foreign-backed groups once their foreign donations reach 7.2 million forints (EUR 23,600) a year.
The EC gave Hungary one month to respond to the matters.
In its response, the government presented its case that the restrictions imposed by the laws in question are necessary and proportionate, state secretary Pál Völner told a press conference.
“We can’t help that the restrictions harm the interests of [US financier] George Soros,” but “not even he is above the law” in Hungary, Völner said. He expressed hope that the EC would “return to the legal ground on which these regulations were adopted”.
Völner insisted that the disagreements between Hungary and the EC regarding the laws in question were mainly political rather than legal in nature.
Regarding the infringement procedure over the amended higher education act, Völner insisted that regulating higher education was a national competency, arguing that the EC’s authority in the matter was “debatable to begin with”.
He suggested that the EC was applying double standards against Hungary in connection with foreign universities, arguing that Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic also require foreign universities operating in their countries to undertake educational activities in their home countries. Slovakia even requires its foreign universities to be headquartered in the EEC, he argued.
Völner said the EC had also criticised the requirement for an interstate agreement to be signed before foreign universities may award degrees in Hungary. The state secretary argued, however, that this stipulation “poses no obstacle between parties willing to work together”. Völner pointed out that Hungary had recently signed an interstate agreement with the US state of Maryland to ensure the continued operations of McDaniel College in Budapest under the amended higher education law. He said the rule prohibiting foreign universities’ use of identical names in different languages was necessary for the sake of credibility.
The aim of the law as a whole is to help identify “phantom universities”, universities without real backgrounds or universities that do not award valuable degrees, he insisted.
On the topic of the infringement procedure launched in connection with the NGO transparency law, Völner noted that in its preliminary opinion about the then bill, the Venice Commission had said the legislation pursued “legitimate aims”. Parliament eventually passed a law amended in line with the Venice Commission’s recommendations in connection with the bill, he noted.
Regarding the EC’s concern that the law introduced restrictions to the free movement of capital, Völner insisted that this was not the case, arguing that civil groups remained free to secure funding from any source they choose. The law ensures the transparent flow of money in the civil sector, he insisted.
“Transparency is needed because it is clear that NGOs worldwide insert themselves into the political process without being subject to laws regulating political parties and influence public opinion while eluding regulation,” he said.
Commenting on a suggestion that the civil groups most vocal in their criticism of the law had yet to register as foreign-backed groups, Völner said this was a form of political protest on their part. If they officially announce their refusal to register, they will face legal action which could end with their dissolution as NGOs in Hungary, he added.