Hungary's Orban defiant on education law despite allies concerns

Lachlan CARMICHAEL
Orban has pledged to meet the EU demands, according to his political family

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban insisted Saturday that no agreement had been reached over a controversial higher education law that could close down a Budapest university founded by US billionaire George Soros.

His comments came despite claims by allies in the EU's powerful centre-right political group that he would soon yield to EU pressure.

The European People's Party (EPP) said after a meeting in Brussels between its top officials and Orban that he agreed to quickly meet EU rights demands over the education law.

Orban, whose ruling right-wing Fidesz party is part of the EPP group, was summoned to the meeting to discuss the law as well as a national questionnaire campaign called "Let's stop Brussels!" that the European Commission said contains "false" statements" about the bloc.

The commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, on Wednesday launched so-called infringement action against Hungary over the education law, alleging it targets the university and breaches fundamental EU free-market laws as well as the right of academic freedom.

It gave Budapest one month to comply or face being taken to court.

EPP President Joseph Daul said in a statement after the meeting that the party had "sent a clear message to (Orban) and to (Fidesz), that we will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or that the rule of law is disregarded.

"The EPP demanded from Fidesz and from the Hungarian authorities that they take all necessary steps to comply with the commission's request. Prime Minister Orban has reassured the EPP that Hungary will act accordingly."

Speaking to reporters later however Orban said the issue of "the university of George Soros, which is called Central European University, is proceeding at its own legal pace".

"On this, no agreement has been reached. Hungary and the Commission will discuss this in the coming months. The legal dispute will have an end result, and this end result will be implemented," he said.

The university should not "enjoy special privileges" even if his government is ready to cooperate with the commission and says it does not wish to close the institution, Orban's press office said in a statement to the Hungarian newswire MTI.

- Anti-EU campaign 'unacceptable' -

The powerful EPP -- which is associated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- has insisted that the Central European University (CEU) remain open and that all action against it be withdrawn.

Hungary can be taken to the European Court of Justice if it fails to comply with the Commission's requests and the court could impose stiff financial penalties.

In Budapest, the US-registered CEU said "it welcomes the EPP's clear defence of academic freedom and support" for the university.

"We call on the Hungarian government to initiate discussions immediately with the relevant US authorities... to conclude an agreement that guarantees CEU's right to remain in Budapest as a free institution," it said in a statement.

The EPP said it also told the Orban government it was "unacceptable" for it to post the "Let's stop Brussels!" questionnaires to households nationwide asking them how to deal with EU policies that Budapest says threaten their independence and security.

Despite the EPP's objections, the latest phase of the "Let's stop Brussels!" campaign, a public information message broadcast on television, was launched later Saturday.

The EU is also concerned about legislation due to go to the Hungarian parliament in May which would force NGOs receiving more than 7.2 million forints (around 23,000 euros) annually from abroad to "register" with the authorities.