BRUSSELS — The head of a Hungary-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros appealed Tuesday for European Union support to fight a new law he says is aimed at shutting the school down.
“My institution has a gun pointed to its head,” Central European University President Michael Ignatieff told lawmakers, academics and reporters at the European Parliament, a day before Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the assembly in Brussels.
Hungary’s new higher education law was approved earlier this month and is set to enter force in October. Ignatieff said it means that his campus in Budapest might not be able to accept new students after Jan. 1.
“This would be the first time since 1945 in Europe that a member state of the European Union sought to close down a free university,” he said, alongside representatives of the five biggest political groups in the parliament.
Orban says the CEU is “cheating” because it issues diplomas accepted both in the United States and in Hungary, where it has been operating since 1993. The university is accredited in New York state but has no campus there.
Orban says this gives CEU an unfair advantage over other Hungarian universities, but has denied that he wants to shut it down. Ignatieff says around 30 U.S. universities abroad do not have campuses at home, including in Cairo, Beirut and Central Asia.
The Hungarian leader will face his critics in the assembly on Wednesday as EU lawmakers debate concerns about his country, including a “Let’s Stop Brussels” campaign aimed at highlighting what he says is an EU power grab aimed at limiting the rights of member countries.
The university dispute is part of a wider government campaign against Soros. Orban claims Soros is undermining Hungarian interests because of his support for migrants. Tens of thousands of people have crossed into and through Hungary, and Orban is determined to stop more coming.
Top European Commission officials will meet with Soros in Brussels later this week. Soros will be received by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Timmermans also will address the lawmakers Wednesday just before Orban speaks.
Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary contributed to this report.