Hungarians protest government crackdown on universities, NGOs

Supporters of Hungary?s political opposition hold a banner during an anti-government protest entitled 'We do not give away our future, we stay here' at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Budapest, Hungary, 21 May 2017. [Balazs Mohai/EPA]

Thousands of protesters marched through Budapest on Sunday in a demonstration against tough laws targeting foreign-backed NGOs and higher education institutions, amid rising tensions between Budapest and Brussels.

A crowd estimated at 10,000 people by local media waved European Union flags and chanted “Democracy! Freedom for Hungary!” as they made their way toward the parliament building, escorted by police cars.

The mass rally was the latest protest sparked by a draft bill aimed at forcing NGOs to disclose how much foreign funding they receive.

Protesters are also angry at a higher-education law fast-tracked through parliament in April, which could lead to the closure of the prestigious Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.

Critics say the laws reflect the increasing authoritarianism of populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010.

The measures are seen as an attack on Orbán’s arch-enemy, the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros who founded the CEU in 1991 after the fall of communism and finances many of the foreign NGOs in the country.

Orbán – himself a one-time recipient of Soros funds – has turned against the philanthropist in recent years, accusing him of interfering in EU affairs by backing open borders and pro-refugee policies in the bloc’s migration crisis.

The strongman PM has taken a tough stance against asylum-seekers, describing immigration as a “Trojan horse of terrorism”.

His hardline policies have put Orbán at odds with Brussels.

Orbán: Hungary has no big issue with EU, it has a problem with Soros

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he was committed to the EU and accused US billionaire George Soros of “attacking” his country yesterday (26 April) as he defended a law that could close down a university founded by the philanthropist.

Last month, the EU launched legal action against Budapest over the education legislation, which could force the CEU to shut its doors.

And on Wednesday, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission to trigger a legal procedure known as Article Seven over what it called a “serious deterioration” of democracy.

Hungarian vote badly divides EPP group

The centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) was badly fractured yesterday (17 May) over a vote condemning the “serious deterioration” in the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, with 107 of the group’s MEPs voting against the instructions of the EPP leadership, and only 92 following them.

The article, referred to as the bloc’s “nuclear option”, could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the Council of Ministers, the EU’s highest decision-making body.

However, the EU would need unanimity among member states to establish that a violation has taken place and Hungary’s ally Poland would likely block it.

On Friday, Orbán denounced the EU for what he called “distorted” policies and again accused Soros of pulling the strings in Brussels.

Macron's win puts pressure on Poland, Hungary to align with EU

While the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president with a vision of closer European Union integration was a relief to much of Europe, for Poland and Hungary it fanned fears of losing influence.

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