Hungary's prime minister lashed out at George Soros, founder of the embattled Central European University. The PM's remarks came after the EU Commission sent a "letter of formal notice" to the Hungarian government.
In a speech given to European parliamentarians in Brussels on Wednesday, Orban insisted Hungary remained committed to the European Union, describing his nation's membership as "not questionable" but simultaneously expressing discontent with the bloc and a desire for EU reform of its "mistakes."
The Hungarian prime minsiter's appearence in the European Parliament came hours after the European Commission began legal action against the country in light of a recently passed controversial education law perceived as targeting George Soros' Central European University (CEU).
EU sends Orban a letter
European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said on Wednesday that "a letter of formal notice" had been sent to Orban's government. According to Dombrovskis, the decision to begin the legal action was made after an "in-depth legal assessment" concluded the new Hungarian law allegedly breaches EU laws regarding freedoms for businesses, services and academia.
The letter is the first step of the EU's so-called infringement proceedings, whereby Brussels demands legal explanations from a member state on a particular issue. The Hungarian government has one month to respond to the letter. Brussels will then consider if any further steps are warranted. These could include referral to the European Court of Justice and possible financial penalties.
Orban criticizes EU criticism
Orban called the accusations against Hungary "absurd."
Standing before European lawmakers, Orban described the contested law as a "minor amendment" that applies to 28 universities and not just to the CEU. He described the flare-up around the law as "absurd," likening it to a pre-emptive murder conviction, given that the CEU continues to operate normally at present.
"It's almost like someone being accused of murder, then he's convicted, while the alleged victim is alive and kicking, moreover, pointing fingers at the convicted, crying: 'Murderer!'," Orban said.
Orban attacks Soros
Orban had even stronger words for CEU founder George Soros. He labeled the American-Hungarian billionare a "financial speculator" who was "attacking" Hungary.
Orban also painted Soros as detrimental to Europe as a whole, claiming Soros had "destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans with his financial speculations" and describing Soros as "an open enemy of the euro." The Hungarian leader also said the businessman wanted to open Europe's borders to millions of migrants.
Orban went on to criticize the EU for its warmth towards the billionare. On Thursday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is scheduled to meet with Soros.
CEU at the center of controversy
The EU's formal letter focuses on the law passed on April 4 that requires foreign universities operating in Hungary also have a campus in their home country. The law is seen as aimed squarely at Central European University, which has been operating in Budapest since 1993. Despite being accredited in the US state of New York, the university does not have a campus in the United States.
Orban has accused the university of maintaining an unfair advantage over other Hungarian institutions because it confers degrees that are recognized in both Hungary and the United States, However, he denied wanting to shut it down.
Critics of the right-wing head of government have decried the law, taking to the streets in protest at what they described as a targeted attack on an institution that promotes liberal values Orban is seeking to repress.
Should an agreement cease to materialize, CEU may be forced to cease enrolling new students as of January 2018.
"My institution has a gun pointed to its head," CEU President Michael Ignatieff told EU parliamentarians on Tuesday.
Showdown between Brussels and Budapest
The launch of legal action has raised the temperature on an already fiery relationship between Orban and the EU.
The EU-skeptic Orban has claimed the supranational bloc threatens Hungary's sovereignty and has launched a "Let's Stop Brussels!" questionnaire asking the opinion of Hungarian households on how to respond to alleged EU interference in Hungarian independence.
cmb/sms (AFP, AP)