Hungary may approve a new law as soon as Tuesday that could force a university founded by financier George Soros out of the country despite a protest against the plan in Budapest and condemnation abroad.
Today in the EU Parliament plenary, S&D Group (Socialist) president Gianni Pittella said:
“After the attack on the media autonomy, now Orbán is trying to silence another outstanding symbol of the freedom of thought and expression in Hungary: The Central European University. This is completely unacceptable and reinforces our concerns over the decline of democracy in Hungary under Orbán.
“Is the current democratic level acceptable for a full member of the European Union? Are Orbán and the current Hungarian leadership respectful of EU’s democratic principles and the rule of law?
“It is an outrage that Fidesz and Orbán are still members of the EPP family. I wonder what else should happen in Hungary before someone in the EPP wakes up and finds the courage to finally say something over the worrying situation in Hungary.
“As the EPP is still silent, the S&D Group calls on the European Commission to monitor this slide from full democracy and finally take action against Orbán’s government. Enough is enough.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a staunch critic of liberal civil organizations funded by Soros, said on Friday last week that the Central European University had violated regulations in awarding its diplomas, an allegation the college firmly rejected as false.
The CEU, which was founded in Budapest in 1991 following the collapse of communism and has 1,400 students, said it operated lawfully and was accredited to award Hungarian and U.S. degrees.
Thousands of students, professors and supporters rallied in Budapest on Sunday demanding the government withdraw the draft legislation, which they called an attack on freedom of education.
István Ujhelyi MEP, head of the Hungarian delegation in the S&D Group, added:
“What is happening now to the Central European University is more than a mere threat or an act of political vengeance. It is another step towards unbridled authoritarianism akin to that of Erdoğan or Putin, where independent institutions are shut down overnight. This is an act of cowardice, a disgraceful action that brings Orbán’s illiberal regime to a new, darker chapter. Furthermore, it sets a dangerous precedent that might jeopardize the operations of education institutions backed by the Hungarian government abroad.
“Clamping down on universities for political gain is surely not the “pro-European” approach what the EPP-ALDE coalition – counting Orbán within its ranks – supposedly champions. The EPP Group’s silence is a painful reminder that the European Parliament’s biggest group is unable to sanction one of its members even if our common European values are at stake. The transformation of a young democracy into illiberal authoritarianism is happening right under our nose, here in Europe. Whoever remains silent, whoever does not stand up for our shared values loses the right to position himself as a guardian of the democratic rights our union is built upon.”
Orban’s government, which faces an election in just over a year, submitted a bill to parliament last week to regulate foreign universities setting several new requirements, which could force the CEU to leave Hungary.
Under the bill, foreign universities must have a campus in Budapest and in their home country. CEU, which only operates in the capital, is the only international college with no arm elsewhere.
Parliament, where Orban’s Fidesz holds a comfortable majority, could approve the new rules on Tuesday in a fast-track procedure, according to a legislative agenda posted online.
A new passage in the bill also stipulates that foreign universities could award degrees in Hungary only if the governments of Hungary, and in CEU’s case, the U.S., sign an accord on the matter within six months of the law taking effect.
More than 500 leading international academics, including 17 Nobel Laureates have come out in support of CEU, saying it was one of the preeminent centers of thought in the country.
The U.S. State Department said last week that CEU was a “premier academic institution” that promoted academic excellence and critical thinking, and urged the government “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.”
Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which support democracy, has been active in Hungary for three decades and Soros has financed foreign scholarships for Fidesz politicians, including Orban, at the time when communism collapsed.