„We won a battle in Brussels in just five minutes”, said Tibor Navracsics after his meeting with the European Commission regarding the fate of the Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe funds. The Hungarian government representative hoped that, as he put it, it was just a simple misunderstanding that could quickly be corrected. Well, it wasn’t, and the Orbán government has obviously made no effort to remedy the situation and still makes none.
To put it simply, in the case of universities forced to change to a foundation model, the European Commission is withholding EU funding for international student exchange programmes (Erasmus+) and research programmes (Horizon Europe), basically because of the way in which trustees are selected and because of conflicts of interest. The Brussels body made it quite clear early on what specific problems it identified, for example in the appointment of Fidesz politicians to the board of trustees for life, but the Orbán government kept on trying to be a smart-aleck about it until we slowly ran out of time.
Little do they care, of course, as the children of the beneficiaries of the NER mostly study at fancy private universities in Western Europe, but for the nearly 10,000 Hungarian young people who are only able to go on exchange abroad under this programme every year, the situation is far more painful. Not to mention the researchers and teachers who are now also likely to be deprived of research grants and programmes because of Fidesz’s stubbornness.
The government’s announcement that, if Brussels does not provide the funds, the Hungarian state will finance the Erasmus programme is proof of Orbán’s arrogant and cynical attitude: this is not just a question of money, as funding must be accompanied by another host/cooperating institution, and the Hungarian universities that are subject to the model change will temporarily lose this opportunity. And they too know this.
It is no coincidence that the state-party media is not talking about it, but the Fidesz government has been nit-picking about the details until the talks ran dangerously out of time. The European Commission, for example, proposed that instead of a lifetime appointment, the term of office of trustees should be two times four years, but Orbán’s people insisted on a minimum of two times six years. They were similarly small-minded about the period of compulsory rest before appointment (i.e. how long an active politician or public office holder can sit on a university board of trustees after resigning), where the Commission proposed two years, but the Orbán’s team yet again pushed for one year.
Now the government is defending itself by saying that they have already sent the latest version of the proposed amendment to Brussels, but they are waiting for a reply in vain, which means the ball is not in their court. It is a weak and false argument. For the moment, let us leave aside the fact that the European Commission has made it clear on numerous occasions that it can only examine the substance of legislation that has already been adopted. This means that the Fidesz majority would have to accept the relevant amendments before the final green light as the Commission fails to believe anything the Orbán government claims anymore. However, the most disgusting part of the government party’s reality-bending is that it is Brussels stalling for time when in fact the Hungarian cabinet has been aware of the problem and the relevant deadlines for many months, yet it has been waiting leisurely and obnoxiously for the Commission to chicken out before the wall. Well, no. Thanks, Viktor.
Earlier, the deal was that the final deadline for reaching some sort of agreement was 18 July, that is, two days from now, or else we could say goodbye to the relevant money for a while. The situation is more fortunate in that, according to the European Commission, there is still time to amend the laws before 1 September, but in a way that the Brussels panel still has time to evaluate them. In other words, there may just be a tiny little crack in that wall after all if Fidesz is serious about supporting Hungarian students and researchers.
A quick extraordinary session could be called (where maybe Sweden’s accession to NATO could also be ratified, just sayin’) and the necessary amendments could be voted on without any petty meddling, and that’s it. The problem, however, is that Fidesz doesn’t seem to care. They have announced that the National Assembly will resume its work in September next time, so good rest to all; that’s it, bam. It seems that they really do not mind crippling young Hungarians if, in return, they can defend their Fidesz rooks and point the finger at Brussels.
For 13 years, Hungary has had a government that has never taken responsibility for anything. Because whatever happened was caused by the European Union, Brussels, George Soros, refugees, the anti-Hungarian world conspiracy, or perhaps the weather. Viktor Orbán’s government is the football team that can explain away any defeat, any horrendous match, by the time difference, the climate at high altitude, the opponent’s – otherwise non-existent – fouls, or perhaps the referee working directly against them. And of course, their ultras nod and spit as they should.
I’d like to point out that if thousands of Hungarian students end up irreversibly losing the opportunity to study abroad this year because of the Fidesz government’s petty stubbornness, then someone will really have to take the blame for that. Courageously, like a man. Someone will have to explain that it was all worth it. That it was worth all this frustrated arrogance, all this uncompromising obnoxiousness. That it was really worth it to stab tens of thousands of Hungarian students in the back for the sake of a few Fidesz buddies. Orbán and his mates still believe – with 13 years of experience – that with the right propaganda and cleverly couched explanations, Hungarians will swallow anything. But they are wrong. This may not be the flashpoint, but the dirt is piling up and will one day fall on Orbán’s office in the former Carmelite monastery. Time is not working for them. All systems fail at some point.
dr. István Ujhelyi
Member of the European Parliament / Founder of the Community of Chance