Hungary’s Crackdown on Soros-Linked School Brings EU Lawsuit Threat

Updated on
  • European Commission reacts to rules on foreign universities
  • Controversy is latest spat between Orban and rest of EU

George Soros

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

European Union regulators threatened to sue the Hungarian government for tightening the regulation of foreign-funded universities including one established by billionaire financier George Soros.

The European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s regulatory arm, began an infringement procedure that could result in a lawsuit against Hungary because of possible breaches of the bloc’s open-market rules. The Hungarian educational legislation could shutter Budapest-based Central European University, which Soros founded in 1991 to train post-communist democratic leaders in eastern Europe.

“The law is not compatible with the fundamental internal-market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment,” the commission said in an emailed statement on Wednesday in Brussels. It’s sending the Hungarian government a “letter of formal notice,” an initial step that sets a one-month deadline for a reply, which would be followed by a final warning before any lawsuit at the EU court.

This is the latest in a series of sore points in recent years between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the rest of the EU, ranging from his opposition to taking in Mideastern refugees to his disregard for democratic sensibilities. In 2014, after being re-elected to a four-year term, Orban said Hungary should become an “illiberal state” and he listed Russia, Turkey and China as possible models.

Death Penalty

Orban provoked a political outcry across Europe in 2015 when he reacted to the murder of a tobacco-shop saleswoman in Hungary by saying the country should “keep the death penalty on the agenda.” The EU bars capital punishment. Three years before that, the government in Budapest prompted high-profile EU concerns it was encroaching on the Hungarian central bank’s independence.

The European Parliament debated the situation in Hungary on Wednesday in Brussels, with a number of leading members accusing Orban of continued backsliding on democratic norms. As he has done in the past, Orban took part in the EU assembly’s exchange and stood by his government’s policy.

While pledging to try to soothe current tensions with the EU through “dialog and negotiations,” Orban said the new education law poses no threat to the existence of Central European University. He said the legislation applies to 28 such institutions and ends special privileges with the aim of establishing a “level playing field” for all universities in the country.

Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of Central European University, rebutted Orban by saying in an emailed statement on Wednesday that the survival of the institution in Hungary is at risk. Ignatieff described as false Orban’s assertion that the new law distributes rights across universities in the country in an equal fashion.

The political stakes for Orban at EU level are tied to his Fidesz party’s inclusion in Europe’s Christian Democratic group, which is dominated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. So far, the EU’s Christian Democrats -- also known as the European People’s Party -- have given no sign they will throw out Fidesz.

In the debate, Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the EU Parliament, called on Orban to heed the commission’s legal concerns.

The Council of Europe, a non-EU institution charged with upholding human rights, plans an “urgent” debate on Thursday about the Hungarian education law. In an emailed statement on Wednesday, the Strasbourg, France-based organization described developments in Hungary as “alarming.”

At home, Orban is facing the biggest anti-government protest wave in more than a decade over the education law. The U.S. has called on Hungary to withdraw the legislation.

The Brussels-based commission said its action against Orban’s administration is based on an “in-depth legal assessment” of the new rules. The measures are also incompatible with the EU “right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the union’s legal obligations under international trade law,” the commission said.

(Updates with Orban comments in seventh paragraph.)
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