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EU Launches Legal Action Against Hungary Over Higher Education Law

Protesters in Budapest take part in a demonstration against a new higher education law that could shut down a university in the Hungarian capital linked to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

BRUSSELS -- The European Commission has launched legal action against Hungary over a higher-education law that could lead to the closure of the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU).

The commission announced the move in a statement on April 26, hours before EU lawmakers sharply criticized visiting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a heated European Parliament debate.

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a senior European Parliament member, told Orban he had "violated every single one" of the EU's values and asked, "What is the next thing, burning books?"

The legal action and the pointed remarks from lawmakers underscored tensions between Brussels and Orban, who critics accuse of endangering fundamental rights and cozying up to Russia.

The European Commission statement said that the Hungarian Higher Education Law passed earlier in April was "not compatible with the fundamental internal-market freedoms" or with "the right of academic freedom."

The privately-run CEU, which was founded in 1991 by U.S. billionaire George Soros, has become a focal point of political debate in Hungary.

Orban has long accused Hungarian-born Soros of interfering in Hungary's internal affairs and has been placing restrictions on organizations connected to Soros.

"We have decided to take legal action on the higher education law by sending a letter formal notice to the Hungarian government on the basis of an in-depth legal assessment," European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference in Brussels.

The Hungarian legislation was passed by parliament on April 4 and signed by President Janos Ader on April 10.

The measure requires foreign universities in Hungary to have a campus there and to provide similar courses in their country of origin.

The CEU, which has some 1,500 students from more than 100 countries, could be forced by the law to stop accepting students next year and shut its doors in 2021.

International Criticism

The Hungarian government's move has prompted international criticism and triggered a wave of large street protests in Hungary.

Orban's government has one month to respond to the commission's letter, which details Brussels' legal concerns.

The letter could be the first step in infringement proceedings -- a process undertaken by the commission to bring an end to the infringement of EU laws and ensure that they are correctly applied in EU member states.

"The commission will take its next steps in light of the answer received from the Hungarian government," Dombrovskis said.

The commission's announcement of legal action came just hours before Orban spoke at a plenary session of the European Parliament focusing on fundamental rights in Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a plenary session at the European Parliament on the situation in Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a plenary session at the European Parliament on the situation in Hungary

Speaking in that debate, Orban criticized both the CEU and Soros -- calling Soros "an American financial speculator" who is "attacking Hungary" and has "destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans with his financial speculation."

Orban also called Soros "an open enemy of the euro" currency.

Orban did not comment on the legal action launched by the European Commission.

Several EU lawmakers harshly criticized Orban during the parliament debate.

Verhofstadt, the head of European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group, accused Orban of haranguing NGOs, restricting the media, and attempting to shut down a university.

"You see enemies everywhere in Hungary,” he said. “In the media, in the energy sector, in NGOs, in the academic world. You signed up to the values of the [European] Union. You have violated every single one of them."

Verhofstadt added: “What is the next thing, burning books?"

Orban only briefly mentioned the controversial Hungarian education law, calling it "a minor amendment" that concerns 28 foreign universities in Hungary.

He said the legislation will introduce "uniform rules applying to them," close loopholes, introduce transparency, and "end privileges that these foreign universities have enjoyed over European ones."

Orban concluded that it was his "job and duty to ensure that European and Hungarian universities enjoy a level playing field and are not at a disadvantage compared to non-EU universities, no matter how big and powerful their owner might be."

Even German Manfred Weber -- the head of the right-of-center European People's Party, which is the largest faction in the European Parliament and includes Orban's Fidesz party -- urged the Hungarian government to "take on board the [European] Commission's requests and implement them."

The United States has criticized the fast-track adoption of the law.

On March 31, before it was passed, the U.S. State Department said it was "concerned" about the proposed legislation and urged Budapest to "avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU's operations or independence."

Overtures To Moscow

Orban, who rose to popularity in the early 1990s as an anti-Soviet politician, has been advocating closer ties with Russia.

He has met with President Vladimir Putin several times since coming to power in 2010. The last such meeting occurred when Putin visited Budapest in February.

A 2015 trip to Hungary by Putin was his first visit to an EU country after Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Orban has defended his overtures to Moscow, saying Hungary needs cheap energy from Russia. But critics say the Hungarian leader is increasingly inspired by Putin's authoritarian style of government.

The Hungarian government also has a draft bill in the works that would place restrictions on civic organizations that receive foreign support.

The bill resembles Russia's 2012 "foreign agent" law, which slaps that label on NGOs that receive funds from abroad and are deemed by the authorities to be involved in political activity.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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