“There are boundaries which even the Hungarian Prime Minister can’t cross.” – Manfred Weber
The European Commission will reportedly announce on Thursday whether it will launch infringement proceedings against Hungary after an evaluation of potentially sanctionable offenses on the part of the Hungarian government.
First deputy president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, who also oversees rule-of-law issues and fundamental rights, expressed concern this month over a number of laws in Hungary including its asylum policy, segregation in schools of Roma children, and employment discrimination against pregnant women. The laws, Timmermans warned, appear to violate European legal norms.
Timmermans, along with a host of other EU officials, has also expressed concern over the recent passage of controversial amendments to the higher education law (Lex CEU), which is set for high-level discussions this week in the European Parliament and European Commission.
Mr Ignatieff goes to Brussels
Timmermans met with Central European University (CEU) rector and president Michael Ignatieff (pictured above) in Brussels Monday, where the two discussed the fate of the embattled university. Ignatieff has been making his case in Washington, D.C. and now in Brussels in an attempt to place pressure on the Hungarian government to withdraw Lex CEU.
Ignatieff later took part in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels, titled “Educational Freedom and Democracy – The Higher Education Crisis in Hungary”, where he insisted that CEU is a university like any other; he doesn’t understand why it has gotten wrapped up in the Hungarian government’s crusade against Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.
“The point of our request is that they leave us alone and let us do what universities do,” Ignatieff said.
The rector denied government claims that Soros is involved in directing the university’s operations, saying, “I’m proud that Mr Soros has given financial support to the operation of the university. I admire him, I consider him a Hungarian patriot. But he doesn’t give me instructions. I am responsible to the university’s 21-member board. The trustees come from such universities as Oxford, Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia.”
Ignatieff repeated his conviction that the amendments to the higher education law were in fact political attacks against CEU.
After Ignatieff’s speech, Hungary’s ambassador in Brussels Zoltán Nagy, who was sitting in the audience, refuted Ignatieff’s accusations, saying, “My government doesn’t see CEU as a battlefield. There are a few disagreements with George Soros, such as his handling of immigration, but it has nothing to do with political revenge.”
Nagy emphasized that the Hungarian government is prepared to defend the amendments to the higher education law, even if the EU launches infringement proceedings against the country over the matter.
Ignatieff thanked the ambassador for his comments, but said that it would have been better had such a dialogue taken place in Budapest earlier, when the rector had repeatedly requested negotiations with the government to no avail. (Hungarian undersecretary for education László Palkovics claimed in late March that the government had not consulted CEU before proposing and passing the legislation in an accelerated procedure because “there wasn’t time for it.”)
Ignatieff said that rather than preparing itself for impending infringement proceedings over its higher education law, it would be simpler for the Hungarian government to refrain from passing laws that conflict with EU rules.
“This would be a much easier way for European existence,” he said.
Everyone’s talking about Hungary
Ignatieff will meet Tuesday with leaders and representatives of the European Parliament to discuss the future of CEU. There will also be a plenary session of the European Parliament Wednesday to discuss the situation in Hungary including CEU.
George Soros will also be in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for talks with EC leaders concerning Hungary’s higher education law modifications. On Thursday Soros will meet with EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice-president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.
According to nepszava.hu, Hungary’s Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Justice Minister László Trócsányi are both in Brussels for talks on Hungary’s immigration and asylum procedures. According to the liberal daily, sources in Brussels do not rule out the possibility that the EC could make infringement proceedings launched in December 2015 against Hungary more severe. Those proceedings began because of Hungary’s methods of conducting criminal proceedings against those that cross its border illegally, which the EC determined violated EU rules. The EU has not expressed an official opinion on Hungary’s newly-adopted asylum policies.
EPP to rethink its relationship with Fidesz
European People’s Party (EPP) chairman Manfred Weber told German news magazine Der Spiegel that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (whose Fidesz party is a member of the EPP group in the European Parliament), must meet the needs of the European Commission if it requests that follow-up changes be made in the higher education law.
“There are boundaries which even the Hungarian Prime Minister can’t cross,” Weber said. “Basic European principles like research and freedom of education cannot be objects of bargaining.”
Weber declared that membership in the EPP shouldn’t be taken for granted, and promised that the EPP would have discussions with Orbán at its next meeting ahead of Saturday’s EU summit.
Rumors have circulated that the EPP may be preparing to kick Fidesz out of the group: Weber himself earlier called for the EC to investigate Lex CEU, and Luxembourgish EPP delegate Frank Engel has called on Fidesz to resign from the party and for Hungary to leave the EU altogether. In a recent interview with Népszava, Engel said: “Fidesz’s governance contradicts everything the People’s Party believed and believes in.”