Friday

23rd Feb 2018

EPP scolds Orban over university and NGO laws

Leaders of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) chided Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban over legislation targeting a university and NGOs ahead of the European Council on Saturday (29 April).

The presidency of the EPP pushed Orban to comply with the European Commission's concerns over the legislation, which, critics say, threatened the Central European University's (CEU) existence in Budapest, but won little sympathy from the Hungarian premier.

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In a statement, Joseph Daul, the party's chairman, said that the "EPP asked Fidesz [Orban's ruling party] and the Hungarian authorities to take all necessary steps to comply with the Commission’s request. Prime minister Orban has reassured the EPP that Hungary will act accordingly."

"We will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or rule of law is disregarded," Daul's statement said, adding the party wants the CEU to remain open.

The EPP also said NGOs represented civil society and must be respected, but the party has not called for the withdrawal of a planned law in Hungary that would label NGOs which receive funding from outside Hungary as "foregin funded".

The European Commission earlier said it would start a legal procedure against Hungary if the NGO bill was passed in its current form.

The EPP has also said the "blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the 'Let's stop Brussels' consultation is unacceptable" and that the consultation, a government exercise, was "deeply misleading".

The Commission issued its own version of the consultation earlier this week to dispell the Hungarian government's statements in the questionnaires that it sent to Hungarian households.

"The constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate," they added.

"He has to change behaviour. That is what we expect," Manfred Weber, the party's leader in the European Parliament, told reporters after the meeting.

"After this discussion the ball is in his court. If he reacts properly, then he is a team player. If not, there will be consequences," he said.

No guarantee

He did not give details, but the EPP has not threatened Orban with sanctions. The statement also made no mention of the possibility of expelling Fidesz from the family.

The finger-wagging has made little impression on Orban, who, upon leaving the EPP summit for the European Council, said of the meeting: "They told me to behave".

Orban has commited to working with the Commission to find a solution on the CEU issue, but has not guaranteed that he would comply with the executive's specific recommendations for changing the law.

The Commission launched an infringement procedure earlier this week arguing that the higher education law broke EU rules on the basis the freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment. Hungary has one month to answer.

Orban was defiant after the EPP meeting and did not commit to changing the CEU law based on the Commission’s and the EPP’s request.

"The George Soros university, what they call Central European University will proceed on its own legal course, there has been no agreement,” he said on his way out of the EU summit.

"This is a legal matter, the European Commission and Hungary will negotiate on this in the next months,” he added.

“There is a legal debate between the Commission and Hungary and it will have a result. We will implement that outcome,” he insisted.

"Nobody can set conditions for Hungary,” he said on the EPP meeting.

He accused George Soros, who was in Brussels last Thursday and Friday, of trying to undermine Hungary.

The EPP has come under pressure to stand up to Orban, whose populist rhetoric and stated aim of building an illierbal democracy have unnerved many in the group.

Members of the EPP group in the European Parliament have also become frustrated with having to defend Orban's recurring breaches of EU rules and challenges to European values.

Analysis

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The European Commission and Parliament are to debate Hungary's slide into illiberal democracy. But the bloc continues to think that Hungarian leader Viktor Orban is not a systemic threat.

Analysis

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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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