European commission says Central European University should be free to operate, patience with PM Viktor Orbán wears thin.
A Hungarian law that threatens a leading university with closure is being investigated by the EU executive, as fears grow that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is eroding democracy.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European commission, said the new law had caused widespread concern and was perceived by many as an attempt to close down the Central European University, which was founded by the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros after the fall of communism in Hungary.
Describing the university as “a pearl in the crown”, Timmermans said it was important it could continue to operate in Budapest undisturbed. “We need to quickly complete a thorough legal assessment of [the new law’s] compatibility with the free movement of services and the freedom of establishment,” he told journalists in Brussels.
That process could eventually lead to Hungary being taken to Europe’s highest court and fined for failing to uphold EU law. Timmermans promised an initial assessment would be complete by the end of April.
The investigation into the university law opens up a new front between Brussels and the Orbán government, amid bitter disputes over migration quotas and EU concerns about the detention of refugees in barbed-wire-fringed camps on the Hungarian border.
Tens of thousands of people protested against the university plan on the streets of Budapest on Sunday, but this did not deter Hungary’s president, János Áder, from signing the measures into law the following day.
The US State Department has called on Hungary to suspend the law, but the European commission did not go that far, saying it needed to investigate further. “We need to be absolutely convinced before we start challenging a member state because we believe they are not in line with EU legislation,” Timmermans said.
He also raised concerns about a draft bill that would require NGOs to declare whether they received funding from foreign sources. Amnesty International has described the leaked draft proposals as reminiscent of Russia’s law against “foreign agents”, which has been used to target critical NGOs.
Timmermans called for dialogue with Hungarian authorities, but rejected suggestions that the rule of law in Hungary was under “systemic threat”.
This means Hungary will not face the EU’s rule of law procedure, a legal mechanism to pressure governments to rewrite laws that endanger fundamental freedoms. Poland is the only country to have been subject to this process, in an ongoing clash with the commission over the workings of its constitutional court. The commission has so far shied away from recommending the ultimate sanction – depriving Poland of EU voting rights. This is partly because Hungary would veto any move in the EU’s council of ministers.
Critics have accused the EU of being too soft on Hungary. Unlike Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Fidesz is part of the mainstream centre-right bloc that includes the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.
But patience is wearing thin. The commission has been infuriated by Hungary’s “Stop Brussels” campaign, launched days after Orbán joined 26 other EU leaders in signing a paean of praise to Europe on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome. Hungarian citizens have been asked to fill in a survey full of loaded questions about whether they support a Brussels plan to force Hungary to let in “illegal migrants”, or if NGOs should be allowed to “interfere” in the country’s affairs.
“If you contrast the signing of the Rome declaration with the Stop Brussels initiative, it is only fair that other European governments and the commission ask where do you [the Hungarian government] want to be,” Timmermans said. “Do you share our values and what does that mean?”
Quoting the former Czech leader Václav Havel, he said EU enlargement was a historic duty. “We needed to put an end to the situation where east and west were moral qualifications, they needed to become geographical qualifications again. We are getting there, but it is by not means an easy process.”
Hungary’s government rejected calls to suspend its higher education law, claiming that Soros-backed organisations had “misled” international public opinion about the Central European University. In a statement the prime minister’s office said: “If the Soros university is driven by good intentions, it will be able to solve the problem.”
Hungarian officials argue the law means the university would be treated in the same way as other higher education institutions in the country, with its status “unchanged”. But the CEU would be forbidden from offering US-accredited degrees – a crucial draw for foreign students. Its rector and president, Michael Ignatieff, has said the law would bring the CEU under government control, giving officials the power to deny work permits to some non-EU teachers and restrict the university’s ability to choose its students.
The government statement was also typically pugnacious on migration quotas, accusing Brussels of “launching attacks” against Hungary. “We are not going to yield an inch as far as the issue of immigration is concerned,” it said.