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EU takes Hungary to top court over crackdown 'aimed at George Soros' EU takes Hungary to ECJ over crackdown 'aimed at George Soros'
(about 1 hour later)
The EU has taken Hungary to the European court of justice over a crackdown on education and foreign-backed civil society groups that critics say targets the US billionaire George Soros. The EU is taking Hungary to the European court of justice (ECJ) over Viktor Orbán’s crackdown on political freedoms and a leading university, as Brussels steps up its fight to protect democratic values in central Europe.
The move underscores the EU’s toughening stance towards both the government of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his rightwing allies in Poland over the bloc’s democracy norms and migration. The Hungarian government was referred on Thursday to the court in relation to a higher education law that could force the closure of Central European University (CEU), founded by the billionaire George Soros, who has been the subject of a demonisation campaign by Hungary’s prime minister.
Brussels warned Budapest in October that it would take the case to its top court if it did not take the necessary measures to comply. The European commission said the legislation ran counter to academic freedom and the right to run a business under the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.
The European commission the executive arm of the EU said Hungary had repeatedly failed to answer its concerns over both cases. Hungary is also being referred over a law that requires non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving foreign donations to label themselves as “supported from abroad”.
It said in a statement that it was suing Hungary as the education law “disproportionally restricts EU and non-EU universities in their operations and needs to be brought back in line with EU law”. Separately, Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic have been referred to the ECJ for refusing to take refugees under a mandatory quota system forced through by the EU at the height of the migration crisis in 2015.
Hungary has introduced an education law that could shut the Soros-founded Central University in Budapest, which has long been seen as a hostile bastion of liberalism by Orban’s rightwing government. The batch of announcements came as the commission published its monthly file of legal actions against member states breaking EU laws. The long list of violations ranges from Portugal’s neglect of EU restrictions on single-use plastic bags to Italy’s failure to ensure suppliers are paid on time.
Earlier this year Soros accused the Orban government of building a “mafia state” in Hungary. But the cases against Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic are the most politically charged and likely to deepen the standoff between Brussels and some central European governments.
In June, Hungary approved a law aimed at forcing civil society groups receiving more than €24,000 annually in overseas funding to register as a “foreign-supported organisation”, or face closure. The commission said Hungary had refused to bring its higher education law into line with EU standards after a Brussels investigation launched in April.
In a separate statement, the commission said the laws on foreign non-governmental organisations “indirectly discriminate and disproportionately restrict donations from abroad to civil society organisations”. CEU in Budapest has long been seen as a hostile bastion of liberalism by Orbán’s rightwing government. Earlier this year, Soros accused the government of building a “mafia state” in Hungary.
The European commission separately announced on Thursday that it was also taking Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland to court over their refusal to accept refugees under a controversial EU scheme. Turning to the NGO law, the commission said “serious concerns had not been addressed” and the Hungarian government had missed a key deadline to respond to Brussels.
The law, which was passed in June, is reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s “foreign agent” law, which has squeezed civil society groups.
Hungarian NGOs receiving foreign funds greater than 7.2m Hungarian forints (£20,000) are required to register and put labels on their websites and publications declaring that they are organisations supported from abroad.
The commission said the legislation would have a stigmatising effect on recipients and donors, and discourage people from making donations.
Legally, the commission argues that it falls foul of the charter and the free movement of capital – one of the four freedoms that form the bedrock of the EU project.
The commission’s decision to take three central European countries to court over refugee quotas will add to the poisonous mood. Poland and Hungary have refused to shelter anyone, while Czech Republic has taken in 12 people, but refused more since August 2016.
The ECJ has already thrown out a legal complaint by Hungary that contested the decision to disperse 120,000 refugees around the EU, with each country taking a quota, except the UK, which has an opt-out from this part of EU law.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the commission, said he had no choice but to refer these governments to court because the EU executive had to uphold EU law.
He warned that the three nations could pay an unspecified price in future, saying: “What goes around comes around.”
Other member states would be asking “what does [refusal on quotas] mean for the solidarity we show to you in number of other areas”, Timmermans added.
The referrals are likely to play into a simmering debate on whether countries backsliding on democratic standards, or flouting EU laws, should lose European funds. The European commissioner for justice, Vĕra Jourová, recently suggested the EU should consider “conditionality” that linked EU funds to upholding the rule of law.
Italy and Greece, the two countries on the frontline of the migration crisis, have called for member states that fail to adhere to the quota to lose EU funds, which make up the lion’s share of public investment in central Europe.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, has ruled out the idea, saying it would be “poison for the continent”.