As it takes the European helm, Hungary is preparing… an alternative Erasmus for its universities

As it takes the European helm, Hungary is preparing… an alternative Erasmus for its universities
As it takes the European helm, Hungary is preparing… an alternative Erasmus for its universities

During 2020-21, taking advantage of the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, two-thirds of public universities were transferred from the State to a new regime of “public interest” trusts, placed in the hands of loyalists of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In retaliation, all Member States except Poland approved, at a European Council in December 2022, the suspension of cooperation agreements and EU funding for exchange (Erasmus) and research (Horizon) programs. A decision taken at the same time as the more resounding decision to freeze 6.3 billion euros of European funds intended for Hungary.

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Erasmus, a key opportunity

The subject is very politically sensitive because around ten thousand Hungarian students go to various European universities every year. Unlike his two friends Balint and Jakab who plan to study abroad, Máté, a high school student, is counting on Erasmus to have an experience outside Hungary. “Studying abroad is really expensive and most Hungarians can’t afford it. Erasmus would give me the perfect opportunity to do that.”he sighs.

The Secretary of State for Innovation and Higher Education, Balazs Hanko¸ blamed the European Commission which, according to him, “has no interest in the success of young Hungarians” and seeks to punish Hungary”because we do not think and act according to the mainstream, neither on migration, nor on gender ideology, nor on the Russian-Ukrainian war.” But, more originally, he has set up a system that is intended to replace Erasmus and Horizon until the conflict between Budapest and the EU is resolved. Twenty-five million euros have been allocated to the Pannonia programme, which, Balázs Hankó assures, will be even better than the original and will award scholarships at least as generous, both to universities in Europe and around the world. As for foreign students, they can continue to come and study in Hungary with Erasmus as before.

That doesn’t solve everything, far from it. A history professor at the University of Pécs testifies to the concern that reigns in the academic world. “It is not only student travel that is at risk, but also university cooperation. The risk is that of a great loss of human capital and trust. The situation is difficult, we hope for reconciliation with the EU”he said.

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Complex links

A parallel can be drawn with Hungary’s withdrawal from NATO. An agreement was reached between the two sides that Budapest could stay out of initiatives towards Ukraine, but without blocking the alliance. This compromise risks permanently undermining the essential trust between the Hungarian and NATO military command structures.

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Hungary’s ties with the EU are increasingly weak. The twentieth anniversary of the enlargement of the European Union to the countries of the former “Eastern Bloc”, on 1 May 2004, went completely unnoticed in Hungary. This Monday, Budapest takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council, which will focus on enlargement to the Balkans – not to Ukraine and Moldova -, the fight against illegal immigration and agriculture. Concerned about Viktor Orban’s power to cause harm, MEPs had proposed weakening Hungary’s presidency or even depriving him of it. Although such a scenario was never envisaged, the European malaise is palpable.

The college of European commissioners will not travel to Budapest to mark the start of the Hungarian presidency this week – this traditional visit would be planned instead for September, for reasons of conflicting agenda. On Sunday morning, Viktor Orban announced that he wanted to form a new group in the European Parliament, with forces…. Eurosceptics and far-right.

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