The European Union's top court has ruled that a law on foreign-funded universities that Hungary used as grounds to shut down a renowned university founded by U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros was illegal.
Under the legislation passed in 2017, foreign-registered universities can no longer operate in Hungary unless they also provide courses in their home countries, a provision that the European Court of Justice said was incompatible with EU legislation.
"The conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher-education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law," the European Court of Justice said in its ruling on October 6.
The Central European University (CEU) transferred the bulk of its courses to Vienna in 2018 after a long battle between Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who provides support to numerous civic organizations through his humanitarian foundation, and the government of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Soros called the ruling "a victory for the fundamental values of the European Union," but said the decision "comes too late for CEU."
"We cannot return to Hungary, because its prevailing laws don't meet the requirements of academic freedom," he said.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said that any EU court ruling would only be applied "in accordance with the interests of the Hungarian people."
The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, had referred Hungary to the court after Budapest in 2017 passed a law requiring NGOs that receive more than 7.2 million Hungarian forints ($27,000) of foreign funding annually to register as such and make the distinction public.
The law, nominally meant to increase the transparency of NGO finances and combat money laundering, said NGOs must publish the names of donors or be subjected to sanctions.
Critics say the measure targeted Soros, a harsh critic of Orban.
Orban has accused NGOs funded by Soros of political meddling. Soros has rejected the campaign against him as "distortions and lies" meant to create a false external enemy to distract Hungarians.
In 1989, Orban himself funded his studies at Oxford through a scholarship offered by Soros.
The EU court said in its ruling that the requirement introduced by the reform that non-EU universities could operate in Hungary only if their home country had a bilateral treaty with Hungary was in breach of the bloc's Charter of Fundamental Rights. The law also contravened commitments made by Hungary as a member of the World Trade Organization, it added.