BRUSSELS — The European Union executive on Wednesday openly questioned Hungary’s commitment to the bloc’s fundamental values and launched an investigation of a Hungarian law which is widely seen in Europe as targeting the Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros.
EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that the investigation would be completed “as soon as possible” and that the commission would consider what steps to take next by the end of April, the same weekend the EU leaders will be holding a summit in Brussels.
He said the probe will look into whether the new law conflicts with EU rules and could apply to other European universities. It would also examine whether it is compatible with EU principles on the free movement of services and respects the bloc’s rules governing the admission of researchers from outside Europe.
The initiative showed the increasing frustration in the EU with the seven-year rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has increasingly pursued policies that go in the face of the EU ideals of close cooperation.
“Where do you want to be in this European Union?” asked Timmermans, confounded by Orban’s signature at a EU summit two weeks ago to work for a united EU while following it up with a new National Consultation that has the motto “Let’s Stop Brussels.”
“What the heck is going on?” Timmermans asked.
Orban has long planned to transform Hungary into an “illiberal state” where majority rule trumps that of minority rights and national rules trump adherence to EU standards in some areas. The plight of the Central European University has come to crystalize the debate.
Orban views the New York-based Soros as a political antithesis pushing globalism contrary to Hungary’s cherished local values. The Hugarian leader also opposes Soros’ support for NGOs such as Transparency International which Orban views as trying to illegitimately influence his government and Hungary’s politics.
“Central European University has been a pearl in the crown of Central Europe in forming a new generation of European leaders that see East and West as geographical denominations, not moral or political denominations,” said Timmermans.
The law sets new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary, some of which seem aimed specifically at CEU. It requires universities in Hungary also to have a campus in their home countries. While CEU is accredited in Hungary and in New York state, it does not have a U.S. campus.
Besides CEU and the proposed law on the foreign funding of NGOs, Timmermans also said there were “serious doubts” about the compatibility of Hungary’s recently tightened asylum law with EU norms. He also mentioned the discrimination of Roma children in education and the protection of pregnant working women as areas where Hungary had failed to respond to EU concerns.
While there was political need to discuss with Orban where he wanted to take the country, Timmermans said, “in the formal sense … there is not a systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary.”
Gorondi wrote from Budapest. Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.