Hungary's Orbán grilled by MEPs

Political group leaders and MEPs gave their views on Hungary’s new education law, perceived as targeting the Central European University (CEU), the tightening of rules for non-governmental organisations and asylum seekers and a government survey entitled “National Consultation - Let’s stop Brussels!". Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian-leadership style was likened to old communist ways of Brezhnev and Stalin. Orbán replied to criticism, saying CEU’s future in Budapest is not threatened, stressing that he only wants to make sure Hungarian universities are not in a disadvantage compared to their competitors outside the EU, “no matter how vast and rich person their owner may be", referring to George Soros, who had founded CEU in 1991. He also talked about his stance on migration, reiterating that Hungary would not have them.

Infringement procedure over ‘Lex CEU’

The recently adopted Hungarian Higher Education Law is perceived by many as an attempt to close down the Central European University, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in his speech in the European Parliament on Wednesday. He called CEU “a pearl in the crown of post-divided, free and whole Europe."

The Commission's analysis of the law confirmed our concerns with regard to its compatibility with internal market freedoms and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The College has therefore decided today to launch infringement proceedings against Hungary, by sending a letter of formal notice, and we await a reaction from the Hungarian authorities within a month.

Draft law on ‘foreign NGOs’ also raises concerns

Timmermans also noted that the draft legislation tabled to the Hungarian Parliament at the beginning of the month by members of the governing Fidesz party on the funding of so-called 'foreign' Non-Governmental Organisations is also on the Commission’s radar screen.

“If adopted, it could raise concerns as regard the compatibility with the EU's internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital, and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including the freedom of assembly," he said.

Timmermans stressed that “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."

He admitted that NGOs need to be transparent about their finance, but underlined that the EU executive “will continue to follow the draft legislation closely and will express its concerns on the draft law in the context of the broad political dialogue."

Orbán’s gets slammed

Here are a handful of statements by MEPs that do not put Hungary’s PM in best light.

S&D Group President Gianni Pittella:

Mr Orbán is turning Hungary into an illiberal and undemocratic regime. He is betraying his own people and the history of those who fought and died for freedom and democracy in Hungary. After he strangled the independence of the media, now Orbán is trying to silence an outstanding symbol of the freedom of thought and expression: the Central European University. Our gravest concerns about this illiberal drift are becoming a reality.[...] We called on the European Commission to take action and they have done that. However, the political dialogue with the Hungarian government should only be a first step. If Orbán does not change course, the EU Commission must be prepared to use sanctions against him and eventually trigger Article 7.

GUE/NGL President, Gabi Zimmer:

You have made a law that is directed solely against the Central European University. Is this about freedom of access to study and research, or is it about cheap political gains for you?

French MEP, Marie-Christine Vergiat:

Step by step, you are systematically trying to remove all the counter-balances to your power including the parliament, the media, the justice system, the education sector and NGOs. Your 'Let's stop Brussels' survey is like a joke and the restrictions you have placed on NGOs are inspired by the ones in Russia. Even more worrying is your treatment of refugees and migrants. We are left to wonder if the right to asylum still exists in Hungary when we see the systematic detention of asylum seekers including children, the electric fence along the Hungary-Serbia border, and even snipers along the borders!

Greens/EFA co-president Ska Keller:

Step by step, Orbán is turning against the defenders of rule of law and the urgently needed civil society forces. The European Union must respond to this with an Article 7 procedure for the protection of the rule of law. If the Commission will not act, the European Parliament must itself initiate Article 7, as provided for in the Lisbon Treaty.

Guy Verhofstadt, Chair of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE):

What you have done: harrassing NGOs chasing away critical media, building walls, your opinion to reinstate the death penalty in your country [...] and now you have decided to close down a university. [...] How far will you go? What is the next thing? Burning books also? [...] What I see more and more is not a proud conservative [...], but a modern day version of old communist Hungary. Economic protectionism, excessive nationalism, the surge of an illiberal state. And you see enemies everywhere: in the energy sector, in the media, in the NGOs and now also in the academic world. It’s like Stalin or Brezhnev are back - but now in Hungary.

Orbán founds an ally: former UK Independence Part leader Nigel Farage of the EFDD Group :

[...] these people [Brussels] will go on interfering in the lives of Hungarian people. And you’ll never be forgiven, you are a sinner in their eyes. Not just because you want to close down George Soros’ propaganda machine that masquerades as a university, nothing to do with that. It’s because you won’t pay the price for Mrs Merkel’s supreme folly and sign up to migrant quotas and they will never, ever forgive you for it. [...] logic says its time you gave the Hungarian people a referendum on whether they stay part of the European Union or not. Who knows, you might come and join the Brexit club and then we could fight for a nation of democratic states working together, trading together and put this nonsense behind us.

Orbán plays down criticism as absurd

On ‘Lex CEU’

Orbán said in EP yesterday that the news has spread that the Hungarian government - using the power of law - “has closed the Budapest-based private university of American financial speculator George Soros." (There were no such reports. The fact of the matter is that the new higher education law sets conditions for CEU that seem impossible to meet and could consequently force CEU to cease its operation in Budapest, an outcome it wants to avoid at all cost.)

Orbán said CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff wrote the following to the lecturers and the students of the institution: “We would like to emphasize that the existence of the Central European University is not threatened by anything, the university will continue to operate under any circumstances."

This charge is therefore baseless. It has no factual basis. The situation is absurd. It is like when someone is accused of murder and convicted, while the victim of the alleged crime is alive and well. And pointing and shouting “murderer" at the convict himself.

“This is false"

, CEU said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Ignatieff assured the CEU community in that letter that the university will continue operating under any circumstances. This does not mean, however, that the survival of the university in Hungary is not under threat. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case, due to the actions of the Hungarian government," it added.

Orbán went on explaining that the “small amendment" adopted by lawmakers affects 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary, and “does nothing but unifies the rules that apply to them, closes the possibility of speculations and abuses, demands transparency, and eliminates the privileged position these institutions enjoyed over European universities."

Orbán stressed that it is his duty as Prime Minister “to ensure that European and Hungarian universities are not in a disadvantage compared to their competitors outside the EU. No matter how vast and rich person their owner may be," referring once again to Soros.

CEU said Orbán’s claim that the new law abolishes privileges and loopholes and distributes rights across universities in an equal fashion is also false.

“For weeks now, we have been asking the government to name the specific privileges possessed in the past by CEU and the rights given now to all Hungarian universities. Unfortunately the Prime Minister failed to answer these questions again," the university said.

CEU worked hard to gain accreditation -- issuing diplomas is not a privilege. The measures claimed to benefit the Hungarian universities met with robust protest across the entire Hungarian education sector. This is because the new law and the way it was adopted shows disrespect to Hungarian higher education and to academic freedom.

On tightening regulations for ‘foreign-backed’ civil society groups

“Hungary cannot afford to allow organizations that remain in the shadows — not declaring who they receive their money from and for what purposes — to continuously encourage migrants to break Hungarian law to somehow get into the country," said Orbán in a radio address on 24 February, adding that “by doing so, international organizations which are primarily linked to George Soros have overstepped a line."

Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács said NGOs lack “democratic legitimacy" and many of them represent foreign interests.

Hungarian NGOs already report on their funding, but the government has argued current standards are insufficient.

“Those financial reports do not entirely guarantee full and complete transparency since many times the origins, the real sources of the money, remain hidden," cited Kovács as saying.

“I began funding dissidents in countries that were under communist rule in the 1980s and helped seed the development of civil society organizations within the former Soviet empire," Soros told the portal.

“Their goal is to hold governments accountable to their people, the majority of whom are motivated by the same impulse that led the fall of the Berlin Wall — the desire for freedom."

Orbán told MEPs yesterday that the proposal on NGO legislation follows the American example. He added that many EU countries are seeking to “make the operations of financially strong foreign external lobbies, willing to influence democratic decision-making, transparent to everyone."

“The Hungarian legislation builds on the principal of clarity and transparency. We want nothing else but to be able to know of NGOs what kind of money and what kind of interests are behind them. This does not undermine their constitutional rights to have their voices heard, represent their interests and be able to organise themselves freely," Orbán added.

About Hungary’s asylum policy

Orbán said the basic stance of the Hungarian government on migration is contrary to the intentions of the Commission.

Our position is clear: we do not want, and do not think it is in accordance with the founding treaties of the Union, to settle migrants in our country in a mandatory way.

“It is important information that George Soros and his NGOs want to transport one million migrants to the EU per year. He has personally, publicly announced this programme and provides a financial loan for it."

Orbán went on explaining that migrants do not want to come to Hungary, rather they want to go through Hungary to Austria, Germany and Sweden.

He stressed that Hungary is “protecting Austria, Sweden and Germany", simply by complying with the Schengen Agreement.

He found the attacks on Hungary strange, arguing that “Hungary is not even acting primarily in its own interest, but in the interest of the Germans, Swedes and Austrians. We Hungarians believe that we deserve recognition, rather than attacks."

The PM stressed that Hungary’s position on the issue of migrants is “perfectly clear":

“Illegal immigration must be stopped, and refugees and migrants must be separated from each other outside the territory of the European Union. Assistance for those in trouble must be brought to where the trouble is, rather than bringing people in trouble into the European Union."

Orbán also said that so far less than 10% of the total number of people specified in the quotas have been relocated, which makes it “obvious that the policy based on relocation and mandatory quotas has failed."

“There is no point in forcing this any further, as even those Member States which, unlike us, are not openly opposed to the plan are failing to implement it. This was a bad idea. If a bad political idea proves to have failed, it must be abandoned and a new solution must be sought."

About the national consultation

Delivering on its previous promise, the European Commission has published its response on Wednesday to Hungary’s National Consultation which was launched under the slogan 'Stop Brussels’. The cabinet’s claims and loaded questions of the distributed questionnaires have been contested one by one.

“Our position is that we do not want change in these questions, we don’t want to reorganise national and Union competences in these matters, thus we are defending the current status quo - formulated by our common will. Hence the term “Stop Brussels"," Orbán said.

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