The European Commission's decision to freeze payments worth billions of euros to Hungary threatens to prevent thousands of the country's students from participating in the EU's flagship Erasmus university exchange programme, De Morgen reports.
The news comes after the EU announced last year that roughly €22 billion of cohesion funds – including €40 million earmarked for Hungary's Erasmus scheme – will be withheld unless Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government implements a series of reforms relating to the judiciary, LGBT rights, and academic freedoms.
One Hungarian university official claimed that the ongoing dispute between Brussels and Budapest had made his institution a virtual pariah among other European universities.
"Our partner universities reject students and staff," said Péter Árvai, the Deputy Director of the International Recruitment Office at the University of Pécs (southern Hungary). "They consider cooperation with Hungarian universities too risky. A medical student who wanted to go to Poland was rejected, as was a student who was going to attend a technical college in the Czech Republic for a semester."
According to the European Commission, since its launch in 1987 more than 10 million people have participated in the Erasmus scheme, including almost 23,000 Hungarians in 2020 alone.
'It really hurts'
Many other university officials and students interviewed by De Morgen expressed similar concern and even dismay at Hungary's potential exclusion from the exchange programme.
"It's a really sad state of affairs," said Nada Orsulics, a 22-year-old pharmaceutical sciences student who hopes to spend a semester in Madrid next year. "Higher education must remain separate from politics – [this is true] also for the EU. Hungarian students cannot do anything about this."
Her words were echoed by University of Pécs Rector Attila Miseta: "It really hurts. The pain is financial but for us as a university it goes deeper. We were part of the European education system."
Miseta also expressed scepticism as to whether the EU's decision to suspend Erasmus funding will prove effective in pushing for the requested reforms: "A politically motivated sanction of Erasmus grants does not seem to me to be the solution."
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Similar sentiments have been expressed even more vociferously by senior Hungarian government officials in recent months. Earlier this year, Orban's Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyas told reporters that the EU's decision to cut Erasmus funding is "unacceptable". Orban himself suggested in March that the EU is "playing dirtily" by conditioning the provision of academic funding on the implementation of various political, judicial, and legal reforms.
The controversial leader also claimed that his own government will be forced to step in to provide Hungary's universities with the required funding if no EU money is ultimately forthcoming.
"Even if we cannot reach an agreement with the EU – although I believe that we will be able to – the Erasmus programme will still exist," Orban said. "In the worst case scenario it will be financed from the Hungarian budget... We shall not allow Hungarian universities and their links to the Hungarian economy to be damaged, however minimally."