Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s rightwing prime minister, has come out fighting against legal action launched by the EU because of his treatment of a leading university founded by George Soros, claiming Brussels was supporting a financial speculator who had destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.
In combative performances, first to the European parliament and then to reporters, Orbán rejected claims that Hungary’s new higher education laws were designed to shut down the Budapest-based Central European University.
He said the argument between the EU and Hungary was a technical legal matter and that the root of the clash lay instead in a continuing row about his country’s refusal to take in its allocated number of refugees under a Brussels plan to deal with the migration crisis.
Orbán did, however, accused CEU founder of destroying the lives of millions of people, telling MEPs: “We are not as big and powerful as you are and as big and powerful as George Soros the American financial speculator attacking Hungary, who has destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans with his financial speculations, who has been fined for speculation in Hungary, and who is an open enemy of the euro.
“He is still highly regarded and warmly received here at the highest levels. But this is no reason to condemn us with untruths. Fairness is not a question of the size of the country.”
Hours earlier, the European commission had announced it was sending a formal notice of an infringement proceeding over an alleged breach by the Hungarian government of CEU’s right to exist and serve its students.
Soros, who founded the university after the fall of the Berlin wall, is also meeting the European commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, this week in a show of support by Brussels.
The Hungarian government introduced tough measures in April for foreign-registered universities, in a move that has been attacked by CEU as one of the most serious assaults on academic freedom since the end of the second world war.
Under the legislation, those working at CEU will in future require work permits, which the institution says will limit its ability to hire staff. The government has also demanded that the university open a wing in America and that it no longer teach US-accredited courses.
The commission’s first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, said he expected the Hungarian government to respond within a month to the formal notice which demands an explanation and remedy. He further warned Orbán that new laws his government has recently proposed relating to non-governmental organisations and the treatment of asylum seekers on Hungary’s border were “on our radar”.
Timmermans said: “Civil society is the very fabric of democratic societies. We would not be democracies without strong and free civil societies. I would therefore deeply regret any action by the Hungarian authorities aimed at shrinking the space of civil society organisations or any attempt to control or stigmatise their work.”
Orbán dismissed the commission’s concerns in his address to MEPs. He said: “The truth is that this piece of legislation adopted by the Hungarian parliament is a minor amendment that applies to 28 foreign universities in Hungary and all it does is introduce uniform rules applying to them, closes loopholes, introduces transparency and ends privileges that these foreign universities enjoyed over European ones.”
CEU is accredited in New York state but has no campus there.
Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s rector, had accused the Hungarian prime minister of holding a gun to his head through the recent legislation, which prompted 70,000 people to take to the streets of Budapest in defence of the university.
Orbán pointed out to MEPs that Ignatieff had written to CEU staff assuring them that the university’s continued existence was not in doubt. He added that he believed the “core” of all the recent disputes between the EU and Hungary lay in a difference in opinion on how to deal with slow population growth on the continent. He claimed that some in the EU believed that migration could solve the problem while Hungary had a different approach.
In a familiar reference to the importance of a Christian culture in the EU, Orbán claimed the secular approach on the continent could not successfully mix with the Islamic beliefs of those arriving. .
Asked whether he would be willing to take Nigel Farage’s advice and call a referendum on EU membership, tOrbán dismissed the offer of joining the “Brexit club”, saying: “Hungary is not an island. This is the land of freedom and we want to stay here.”