April 6, 2017 / 3:27 PM / 3 years ago

Head of EU executive rejects Hungary move against Soros university

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The head of the European Union’s executive said on Thursday he did not like what was going on in Hungary, where the right-wing, populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban is trying to shut down a liberal university founded by U.S. financier George Soros.

The exterior facade of the Central European University, a school founded by billionaire philanthropist Gorge Soros, is seen in Budapest, Hungary, March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Budapest this week approved a new law that could force the Central European University out of the country, despite protests against the move and criticism from abroad.

European lawmakers have demanded disciplinary action against Hungary over the crackdown on foreign universities, the latest of steps by Orban to subdue independent institutions - from the judiciary and the central bank, to non-governmental organizations and the media.

“About the closure of the university... I don’t like that decision,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters, adding that his fellow EU commissioners will discuss the matter next Wednesday.

But Brussels has so far failed to prevent Orban, in office since 2010, from tightening his grip on Hungary.

Hungary will hold national elections next year and Orban, often quick to lambaste the EU capital, has already rolled out a campaign called “Let’s stop Brussels”.

His government sent letters to citizens asking for their support in pushing against EU policies and Brussels on issues ranging from energy prices to migration.

Juncker sought to play down the significance of the campaign, highlighting that Orban did sign up last month to a joint EU declaration marking the 60th anniversary of the bloc.

“About the questionnaire that Mr Orban has sent to all Hungarian households, it is not about leaving the European Union but about stopping Brussels,” Juncker said.

“This way of speaking badly about Brussels after having signed the Rome declaration says more about the author of the questionnaire than about the state of the European Union.”

The Commission’s options to act over the university issue are limited. Brussels has little oversight on education in member states. While it can open legal cases against EU states violating common rules, they are lengthy and often give little effect.

For the harsher punishment of restricting EU funds, it would need wide backing among other member states, which are usually coy about such steps, fearing they could backfire against them in any disputes in the future.

The nuclear option of stripping a state of their voting rights in the EU requires unanimity of all other EU members.

Hungary has said it would block any such move against Poland, which is also chafing Brussels over its steps to put media and the judiciary under tighter government control, and the alliance between the two means Orban can expect reciprocity.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams

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