LONDON - The European Union says it is taking legal action against Hungary over a new law that could force the closure of a foreign-owned university.
The Central European University in Budapest was founded by American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros after the fall of Communism. Hungary’s government wants to impose tough new conditions on its continued operations.
The new law requires all foreign-owned universities in Hungary to have a campus in the country where they are certified. U.S.-certified CEU does not have a campus in the United States.
Watch: EU Launches Legal Action Against Hungary
The legislation has triggered street protests in the capital that have attracted 70,000 people.
The European Commission said Wednesday the new law was incompatible with the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment, as well as the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The Commission has sent a letter of formal notice to Budapest.
“A letter of formal notice is a first step towards infringement procedure but there is a time for Hungarian authorities to react to the letter of formal notice and then following the reactions the Commission will decide on further steps,” EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said Wednesday.
Claire Gordon, head of the London School of Economics Teaching and Learning Center and an expert on the EU role in eastern Europe, says Brussels appears to have run out of patience with Hungary.
“For some years now Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has been flying quite close to the democratic edge in his restrictions of the judiciary and the media. And it’s interesting that with this attempt to close down the Central European University, this seems to have been a step too far.”
Prime Minister Orban claims the university is "cheating" because it issues diplomas accepted in the United States and in Hungary, thereby giving it an unfair advantage over local institutions. During debate Wednesday at the European Parliament, he denied targeting the CEU.
“The university will continue its operations under all circumstances. This accusation is groundless, it has no basis in fact,” he told EU lawmakers.
One of Orban’s fiercest critics, EU Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans warned the freedom gained at the fall of Communism is under threat, “Protecting their freedom, however, is now a common European task and we will have to fight for that,” he said during the EU Parliament debate.
But there are doubts about whether Europe has the appetite to take on Hungary, says analyst Gordon.
“The big challenge for the European Union is the reluctance of heads of state and heads of government, which sit on the European Council, to take action, which seems to discriminate between members.”
Hungary has one month to respond to the formal EU notice. Protesters say they will stay on the streets until the university’s future is safe.