Orban Scolded by EU Over Law Targeting Soros's University

  • Hungarian leader is summoned to EU party meeting in Brussels
  • Europe’s Christian Democrats tell Hungary to heed EU inquiry

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was reprimanded by his political group in the European Union as western countries signaled they are more willing to get tough on a populist leader who has been a persistent critic of the bloc.

The European People’s Party, a Christian Democratic alliance that includes Orban’s Fidesz party, told Hungary to “take all necessary steps” to comply with an EU probe into a new education law in the country that restricts foreign-funded colleges. The legislation threatens to shutter Budapest-based Central European University, which billionaire financier George Soros founded in 1991 to train post-communist democratic leaders in eastern Europe.

Viktor Orban

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

“We will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or that the rule of law is disregarded,” Joseph Daul, president of the EPP, said in an emailed statement on Saturday after summoning Orban to an early morning meeting in Brussels. “This includes academic freedom and the autonomy of universities. The EPP wants the CEU to remain open.”

The screws are slowly turning on Hungary as Orban champions his “illiberal state.” Mainstream pro-EU parties have been emboldened by expectations of defeat in France for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, by a victory for moderate politics in the Dutch election and by a desire for unity in the front against the centrifugal forces sparked by Britain’s Brexit vote.

Read More: a Q&A on Why Orban v. Soros Put Hungarians in the Street

The European Commission opened the investigation into the Hungarian education law on April 26. Frans Timmermans, its principal vice president, vowed to ensure it produces results. “We’re very firm on this,” Timmermans said on Saturday. “I will not drop this ball.”

The Hungarian government said it was willing to consider “each and every legal argument” put forward by the commission and denied that the law posed a threat to the CEU in Budapest.

Orban, 53, has enjoyed a degree of political protection in Europe because of Fidesz’s membership of the EPP, which also includes the party of the EU’s most powerful figure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This gave Orban, who won re-election in 2014, room to antagonize his allies over matters such as the push for Europe-wide refugee quotas and sanctions against Russia linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

While it gave no indication after Saturday’s discussion with Orban that Fidesz faces a threat of expulsion, the EPP used tougher-than-usual language in expressing concerns about the Hungarian educational law. It said Orban pledged to comply with the EU inquiry. The European umbrella party also added criticism of a Hungarian “Let’s Stop Brussels” survey, saying it featured “blatant anti-EU rhetoric” that is unacceptable.

“The constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate,” Daul said.

— With assistance by Arne Delfs, Marine Strauss, Lyubov Pronina, and Gabriella Lovas

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