Major protest in Hungary over Soros university law

Demonstrators gather to protest against the amendment of the higher education law seen by many as an action aiming at the closure of the Central European University, founded by Hungarian born American billionaire businessman George Soros, in Budapest, Hungary, 9 April 2017. [Zoltan Balogh/EPA]

Hungary saw the biggest anti-government protest in three years on Sunday (9 April), as tens of thousands demonstrated against new higher education legislation seen as targeting the respected Central European University.

The marchers included students and staff of the university, many wearing the blue of the CEU and some waving Hungarian, EU as well as US flags as they marched from the historic Buda castle to the parliament building in Budapest.

Organisers said up to 80,000 people took part in the protest, while an AFP photographer put the number at 60,000.

The English-language CEU was founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros in the early 1990s, aimed at helping the region’s transition from communism to democracy.

The new rules, approved by parliament on Tuesday, bar institutions based outside the European Union from awarding Hungarian diplomas without an agreement between national governments.

They will also be required to have a campus and faculties in their home country – conditions not met by the CEU, which is registered in the United States.

The legislation has attracted widespread criticism abroad, including from Washington, Brussels and academics. There were also street protests last Sunday and on Tuesday.

Hungary passes bill targeting Soros university, sparking protests

Hungarian lawmakers yesterday (4 April) approved legislation that could force the closure of a prestigious Budapest university founded by US billionaire investor George Soros, sparking fresh protests.

The US State Department earlier this month called for the proposal to be withdrawn, while an open letter has been signed by over 900 academics around the world including 18 Nobel prize-winning economists.

‘It’s frightening’

“I have no children, but the way they adopted the regulations against this university is frightening,” Gabor Kis, 45, a cook, told AFP during the protest on Sunday.

“If they can do that to CEU, they can do whatever they want! This has to stop!”

The legislation, which still has to be signed into law by the president, does not mention the CEU by name but the university sees itself as the main target and has warned it may have to close.

Critics see the move as another attack by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Soros, whom he accuses of seeking to meddle in politics and undermine Europe by promoting immigration into Europe.

Orbán names Soros and EU among those ‘attacking’ Hungary

In the annual State of the Union address on Friday (10 February) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán listed among those who “attacked” his country billionaire George Soros and the European Union.

Last week the government published legislation that will oblige NGOs receiving above a certain amount of foreign funding to register and stamp any publication with “foreign-funded organisation”.

‘Unfair privileges’

Mirroring similar rules in Russia, this is also seen as targeting Soros’s Open Society Foundation which funds civil society groups and which has also come under fire elsewhere in the region.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs denied in a blog post on Thursday that the CEU was being singled out, saying that irregularities had been found with 27 foreign higher education institutions.

“It’s noteworthy that all of the other institutions have accepted this modest minimal condition of university equality and fairness. Only CEU has protested because the university insists on its unfair privileges,” Kovacs said.

“These people at the top, they don’t realise that we don’t live in Russia, but in Hungary!” another protester, 23-year-old IT expert Viktor Szakal, told AFP.

“We have to show strength with our numbers. I’m glad that so many people showed up. Orbán understands only the rules of power, and our power comes from our numbers.”

Orbán has said he is prepared “to negotiate with the United States” on the future of the university which has until January to conform with the new law.

The CEU has 1,800 students from 100 countries and is ranked in the top 50 universities for political and international studies in the World University Rankings list.

The demonstration was the biggest since 2014 when protesters opposed Orbán’s right-wing government over a tax on internet usage, which was later withdrawn.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on 6 April that he did not like the push to close the CEU and commented on the “Let’s Stop Brussels” initiative.

Juncker speaks out on Hungary’s illiberal drift

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the “illiberal” drift in Hungary, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said today (6 April) that he did not like the push to close the Central European University, founded by George Soros, and commented on the “Let’s Stop Brussels” initiative.

Questionnaires titled “Let’s stop Brussels!” have been arriving in Hungarian letterboxes since 1 April, only days after leaders gathered in Rome to mark the EU’s 60th anniversary.

Commission unmoved by Orbán’s ‘Stop Europe’ initiative

Hungary launched an initiative called “Let’s stop Brussels” shortly after its prime minister returned from the Rome summit. Asked about it today (4 April), the Commission highlighted the fact that Viktor Orbán had signed the strongly pro-European text only days before.

Juncker said that the College of Commissioners would discuss the issue of the closure of the university on Wednesday.

Commission to debate Hungary’s ‘illiberal’ drift on 12 April

The Juncker Commission will hold a “first debate” over the drift toward ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary at its next meeting on Wednesday (12 April), with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans making a presentation.

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