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The EU gives Hungary a stern lecture

The EU Commission has warned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is steering the country in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Orban is running a provocative anti-EU campaign. DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

In the Brussels press room on Wednesday, EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans gave an unusually passionate and personal speech on the recent developments in Hungary. As the son of a Dutch diplomat, he had experienced the prevailing atmosphere of oppression in Budapest in the early 1980s, when the city was behind the Iron Curtain. "This is gone! And this is the biggest achievement of our generation!" Timmermans exclaimed with regard to the collapse of the Communist bloc and the subsequent reunification of Europe. "That is why I will continue to fight for everything pertaining to liberty, openness and European cooperation."

Timmermans, a European commissioner who is responsible for the rule of law, and the other 27 EU commissioners, have raised concerns regarding the political developments in Hungary. The debate in the College of Commissioners in Brussels was not only about laws being tightened to impose tough restrictions on universities and non-governmental organizations, but also about the overall political climate in the country.

Timmermans warned that populism and nationalism in certain parts of the EU sometimes "have wind in their sails," yet it is the wrong way of addressing problems. "But I think the time has come [for] that wind to go in other sails." That why he is heartened by young people in Europe who support European achievements. "I see young people across Europe standing up for Europe. Because they understand that their rights are self-evident, but not self-executing," said the EU Commissioner with regard to the demonstrations against the clampdown on universities in Hungary.

Ungarn Tausende demonstrieren in Budapest gegen drohende Schließung von US-Uni (picture alliance/AP Photo/T. Kovacs)

Thousands of people in Budapest came out in support of the Central European University

Objections to Orban's law

Protests were scheduled again for Wednesday, in particular against a new university law that would paralyze the Central European University, which was founded by international financier and philanthropist George Soros." And the Central European University has been a pearl in the crown of Central Europe in forming a new generation of European leaders that see east and west as geographical denominations, not moral or political denominations," said Timmermans in praise of the institution, which in the eyes of the Hungarian government advocates too much openness and liberalism in society.

Tibor Navracsics, a Hungarian politician who is currently the EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, also criticized the changes to the Hungarian higher education law. Navracsics is actually a fellow party member of Prime Minister Orban, but he has stated that the Central European University is one of the best educational institutions in the country and should therefore continue to operate.

Orban has repeatedly stated that national and collective interests should have priority over the liberal and individualist ideals that George Soros stands for. Orban says that 2017 is the year in which Soros and other forces aligned with the Hungarian-born US billionaire must be expelled from the country. In a written statement, Orban's government dismissed international criticism of his draft bill as "hysteria."

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EU initiates dialogue, not legal procedures

Timmermans announced that the EU Commission is planning to enter into formal dialogue with Orban to determine where Hungary is heading and where the prime minister stands with his country in the European Union.

This dialogue, based on European fundamental values that are defined in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, does not constitute a formal procedure that can be initiated for the infringement of the rule of law. Hungary has not reached this stage yet, as the threat to the state of the law in the country is not yet "systemic," stated the EU Commission.

Brussels upset about anti-EU campaign

The EU Commissioners were particularly upset about a questionnaire that Orban sent to all Hungarian households. The "Let's stop Brussels!" initiative suggests that the EU wants to force "dangerous things" on Hungarians. Its six questions contain claims that certain international organizations have encouraged illegal immigrants to commit offenses in Hungary. They suggest that foreign organizations have carried out covert actions that interfere with Hungarian interests. According to the claims, the EU also wants to raise taxes and unemployment in Hungary.

EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has rejected the Orban government's portrayal of the European Union. Last week he said that the questionnaire was one-sided and that Orban's intentions were difficult to understand. "This way of speaking badly about Brussels after having signed the Rome declaration says more about the author of the questionnaire than about the state of the European Union," Juncker said disdainfully. In Rome, heads of state and government, including Orban, celebrated the future of the EU on its 60th birthday on March 25.

EU-Sondergipfel Juncker (Reuters)

Far from friends: Juncker finds Orban's intentions difficult to understand

Hungarian laws will be investigated

The EU Commission plans to investigate a number of legislative proposals in Hungary and decide by the end of April whether infringement procedures will be initiated. Along with the new higher education act, NGO funding, the rights of pregnant women in the workplace and the discrimination of Roma children in the country's education system will be investigated. "The new laws on asylum procedures also raise serious doubts about their compatibility with EU law," Timmermans said. All asylum seekers can be detained in Hungary until their application has been processed. Violations of EU treaties may be penalized by the EU Commission and brought to the European Court of Justice.

Separation and discrimination are the wrong path for Hungary and other European countries to take, warned Timmermans. He went on to explain that the complexity of society is irreversible. It was like trying to unscramble scrambled eggs, said Timmermans. "It will go wrong and make a great mess."

"If we do not see progress in Hungary, we will act quickly," he said.