BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - The Hungarian government should engage in "serious, urgent and good-faith talks" with Central European University about legal changes seen to be targeting the school founded by billionaire George Soros, a U.S. diplomat said Tuesday.
A bill signed Monday by President Janos Ader sets new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary, some of which seem aimed specifically at CEU. The law requires universities in Hungary also to have a campus in their home countries. While CEU is accredited in Hungary and in New York state, it does not have a U.S. campus.
"We're very concerned about the legislation," Hoyt Yee, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, told The Associated Press. "The legislation targets Central European University and threatens the ability of the university, an important American-Hungarian institution, to continue operating in Hungary."
The law also calls for bilateral agreements between Hungary and the home countries of universities from outside the European Union on how to manage the institutions.
Yee said "the United States does not engage in such agreements about ... how universities are going to be run in foreign countries. This is a matter for the government of Hungary and CEU to work out."
"We hope that the government of Hungary is going to engage in serious, urgent and good-faith talks with Central European University, as well as other affected institutions," Yee said Tuesday during a visit to Budapest.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the issue had wider implications.
"The legislation, we believe, can also similarly threaten operations of other American universities with degree programs in Hungary," Toner told reporters. "We're urging the government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law. We want to see a review, a discussion, in order to address any concerns through dialogue with the university itself and other affected institutions."
Germany's deputy foreign minister, Michael Roth, said he expressed "incomprehension" about the foreign universities bill and its targeting of CEU at a meeting Tuesday with Hungary's ambassador in Berlin, Peter Imre Gyorkos.
"A lot that is happening in Hungary at the moment fills us with genuine concern," Roth said in a statement. "We are seeing that Hungary is taking an ever-stronger course of confrontation with the EU and its institutions."
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who briefly studied at Oxford University in 1989 thanks to a Soros scholarship, is an avowed ideological foe of the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist's "open society" ideal, which contrasts with Orban's plan to turn Hungary into what he calls an "illiberal state."
Orban says Soros, through his support for nongovernmental organizations like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights advocacy group, is trying to influence Hungarian politics and opposes Hungarian interests by supporting refugees and migrants.
"The final debate is about the migration question," Lajos Kosa, parliamentary leader of Orban's Fidesz party, said on broadcaster TV2. "This is why the Hungarian government and the empire directed by Soros are straining against each other."