Friday

22nd Mar 2019

EU gives Hungary more time for 'dialogue'

The European Commission on Wednesday (12 April) gave Hungary 15 more days to show that its recently passed law on higher education and proposal on non-governmental organisations are in line with EU law.

EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, second-in-command and in charge of human rights and rule of law issues, told journalists in Brussels that the commissioners discussed a “wide range of legal issues pertaining to Hungary”, at the initiative of commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

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  • Timmermans: 'If [Orban] signs [the Rome] declaration, goes back home and says stop Brussels, what the heck is going on?' (Photo: European Commission)

He said the commission will analyse the new Hungarian legislation on higher education, which is “troubling many people in Europe”.

The law, which requires foreign universities to maintain a campus in their home countries, is “perceived by many as attempt to close down the Central European University”, said Timmermans, referring to the academic institution founded by George Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire.

Soros and Hungarian right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban are on opposing sides in a long-standing feud.

“We will complete this legal analysis as soon as possible and the college will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of April,” said Timmermans.

On 27 April, the commission will adopt a new set of infringement decisions. Timmermans said that starting infringement procedures against member states is “a complicated thing to do”.

“We need to be absolutely convinced before we start challenging a member state because we believe they are not in line with EU legislation,” the Dutchman said.

The NGO issue

The commission is also following new draft legislation closely, which will target foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Hungary.

“There can be legitimate public interest reasons for ensuring transparency of funding [for NGOs], but any measures need to be proportionate and must not create undue discrimination within the EU.”

Timmermans also announced it was time for the commission, member states, and the European Parliament to “have a more general political debate, a real debate, a dialogue” with the Hungarian government, about what it wants out of European integration.

Orban signed the declaration in Rome last month, which said that “Europe is our common future”. But only a week later, the Hungarian leader started an initiative called “Stop Brussels”.

Timmermans asked, through a translator: “If he signs that declaration, goes back home and says stop Brussels, what the heck is going on?”

However, he hinted that the dialogue and possible infringement procedures should be enough, and that there was no need for the commission to start the rule of law mechanism, an exercise the commission carried out last year with Poland.

There is “not a systemic threat to the rule of law” in Hungary, as there was in Poland, said Timmermans. He added that the Hungarian government was still talking to Brussels.

“That's a clear difference to the Polish authorities, who have refused to enter into dialogue with us on rule of law points,” he said.

'Disappointing'

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld called Timmermans' press conference "extremely disappointing".

"It is impressive that Mr Timmermans can give a press conference in response to one of the boldest assaults on European values we face without really saying anything. A condemnation would have been nice," she said.

Analysis

EU still shy of 'nuclear option' on values

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Thousands protest Hungary university bill

Protesters reportedly called on Hungarian president Janos Ader to veto a bill that would close down Central European University in Budapest.

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Hungary's university protests, a path for change?

Hungary has seen mass protests over the last weeks in support of the Budapest-based Central European University, targeted by prime minister Orban's latest legislation. But it is unclear how the new street momentum will be transformed into political power.

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