The EU on Thursday ordered Hungary to cease its crackdown on foreign-backed civil society groups - a measure that critics say targets the Budapest-born US billionaire George Soros. Separately, European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans told Hungary's government to respond within a month to criticism that the country's new law governing higher education could shut down a Budapest university founded by the philanthropist.
"We expect a reaction from the Hungarian authorities within a month," Timmermans said. "If the response is not satisfactory, the commission can decide to go to the court."
In a "reasoned opinion" issued earlier in the day, the second step in legal action against a member state for breaching EU rules, the commission found that the law "runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business."
A toothless threat?
Last month, Hungary's parliament approved a law to force groups receiving more than 24,000 euros ($26,000) annually in overseas funding to register as "foreign-supported organizations" or risk closure for noncompliance. They will also have to use that label on their websites, press releases and other publications. Officially, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has imposed the measures to improve transparency, as well as fighting money laundering and terrorism funding.
The threat of legal action comes after months of dialogue between commissioners and Hungarian officials about grievances that go beyond the higher education law. Though Brussels can open cases against EU states that violate the bloc's common rules, proceedings often run long and have little impact. That means the EU executive has limited leverage over Orban, who has held office since 2010.
Orban has often bashed the European Union and repeatedly clashed with NGOs sponsored by Soros, a tycoon who promotes a liberal and internationalist worldview. A recent anti-migrant billboard campaign by Orban's government features an image of the magnate, who is Jewish, hasdrawn criticism for its anti-Semitism . In response to the philanthropist's opposition to formalized xenophobia in Hungary, the poster's caption says: "Let's not let Soros have the last laugh."
At a recent meeting, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker greeted Orban with "Hello Dictator!" - an apparently lighthearted dig at the prime minister's unconventional brand of democracy.
mkg/rt (Reuters, AFP)