Soros-Founded College to Stay in Hungary, Forcing Orban’s Hand

(Bloomberg) -- Central European University, the institution founded by investor and philanthropist George Soros, said it will resist pressure from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and continue to operate in Budapest, even as it will develop a new campus in Vienna.

The decision by the CEU’s Board of Trustees, which includes Soros, forces Orban’s cabinet to decide whether to renew the school’s license by year’s end or risk expulsion from the European People’s Party, the biggest group in the European Parliament which has shielded the populist leader from criticism over the erosion of democracy.

Orban, who’s pledged to eradicate liberal democracy in the European Union country, tightened regulations for foreign universities last year. The EU executive filed a lawsuit against Hungary, citing violations of the bloc’s charter. CEU, which has said the changes were aimed at forcing it out of the country, nonetheless took steps to meet the new criteria but failed to resolve a legal impasse as the cabinet declined to say whether it would renew its license.

“The Hungarian government has repeatedly said that once we fulfill the conditions of the new law, we will be fairly treated and that CEU will be able to operate in Hungary,” CEU’s Chairman of the Board Leon Botstein said in a statement on Tuesday. “Now is the time for Hungary to follow through on these commitments.”

‘Red Line’

The decision is a political hot potato for Orban, who’s plastered Hungary with billboards of Soros in the run-up to April’s parliamentary elections, which he won by a landslide. The billboards depicted Soros, 87, as a pro-immigration mastermind intent on undermining the nationalist government. Soros, who survived the Holocaust in Hungary and eventually emigrated to the U.S., has denied the allegations.

The European Parliament is scheduled to vote in September on whether to recommend initiating a procedure against Hungary to suspend its voting rights in the EU for the erosion of democratic values. To prevent that, Orban needs the backing of the EPP party, whose leader has warned that CEU’s ouster is a “red line” the Hungarian leader shouldn’t cross.

Orban has framed the conflict with CEU as a legal matter, at one point accusing the institution of “cheating” for failing to meet new regulations.

Orban’s Vision

A graduate university which Soros founded in 1991 to fulfill a mission to spread his ideals of “open society,” CEU has been an obvious target for a leader who’s gained notoriety by promoting the opposite vision. Orban won a third consecutive election in April, having campaigned almost exclusively on his anti-immigrant credentials that include a fence he built on Hungary’s southern border.

While Orban’s politics have been an inspiration for anti-immigrant populists including the parties that took power in Italy last month, his critics, including Soros, have said the issue has been a smokescreen for a power grab.

Orban has since 2010 used his parliamentary supermajority to extend his influence over formerly independent institutions, the courts, the media and civil society. Last week, lawmakers in Budapest approved what the government dubbed the “Stop Soros” law, imposing jail terms for the new and loosely defined crime of helping “illegal immigration.”

Soros’s Open Society Foundations, one of the world’s biggest funders of non-governmental organizations, is in the process of moving its 100 staff from Budapest to Berlin, citing concern about the safety of its employees in Hungary.

While re-affirming its commitment to Budapest, CEU hedged its decision. The university said it will start recruiting students in Vienna for the next academic year after its board approved the “rental of an appropriate site.”

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