Merkel's Government Warns Hungary in Clash Over Soros University

  • Germany tricked by billionaire’s ‘lies,’ Orban spokesman says
  • Hungarian, German leaders already at odds over refugee policy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government warned Hungary against obstructing democracy with a law that threatens to shutter a university founded by George Soros, renewing tension between the two European Union allies.

The extraordinary legislation “raises the impression” that the operation of foreign universities in Hungary will be made difficult, “or in individual cases impossible,” Merkel’s deputy spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, said Wednesday. She singled out Central European University, the Budapest-based institution Soros founded in 1991 to train post-communist democratic leaders in eastern Europe.

“Freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights are not up for debate in Europe,” Demmer told reporters in Berlin. “Germany will observe very closely the effects of this law on higher education in Hungary.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party pushed the bill through parliament on Tuesday amid street protests, setting tighter deadlines for universities to meet new regulations or risk closure. Merkel and Orban, while members of the same political family, have previously clashed over refugee policy and may be headed for another dispute as a range of European politicians criticize the education measure.

Democratic Foundation

“Orban is assailing the foundations of democracy in Hungary,” Gianni Pittella, head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, told reporters in Strasbourg, France. Ska Keller, German co-leader of the Greens in the 28-nation parliament, said “Orban needs to be stopped.”

The Hungarian government denies that it’s targeting CEU and says it’s ready to discuss the case with the U.S. “George Soros’s lies can even mislead the German government,” the MTI newswire quoted Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs as saying.

Orban, who has sought to shore up his power as he chips away at government checks and balances, regularly accuses Hungarian-born billionaire Soros for trying to undermine him.

Orban’s measures pose a dilemma for Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union is allied with Orban’s Fidesz party in the European Parliament, where they help make up the assembly’s biggest faction, the European People’s Party.

The two leaders clashed at an EPP conference last week in Malta, where Orban blasted migration into Europe as a “Trojan horse of terrorism.” Merkel defended her open-border refugee policy, which also faces criticism at home as she seeks re-election to a fourth term in September.

U.S. Concern

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday that “Europe must not be silent when civil society, even academia, as now at Central European University in Budapest, is deprived of air to breathe.”

Opposition to the legislation has emboldened Orban, who on Friday called CEU, one of Hungary’s top-ranked universities that’s also accredited in the U.S., a “cheat.” Later, the government acknowledged it’s is run in line with Hungarian law.

The U.S. is “disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University,” despite concern raised by the U.S., local and international organizations and “thousands of Hungarians who value academic freedom,” David Kostelancik, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Budapest, said in an emailed statement.

— With assistance by Zoltan Simon, and Jonathan Stearns

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.