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EU takes legal action against Hungary over Soros-backed university

The EU has launched the first stage of a legal action against Hungary over its treatment of a leading university which claims it is the victim of a government campaign to shut it down.

A letter of formal notice has been sent to Viktor Orbán’s rightwing government, asking Budapest to present an explanation for an alleged breach of EU law in relation to the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros.

The move came on the same day the Hungarian prime minister was due to address the European parliament, during a debate on Hungary’s approach to higher education and non-governmental organisations, setting the scene for a fresh clash between the country and the EU.

Brussels and the Orbán government have been at loggerheads over migration quotas and the detention of refugees in barbed-wire-fringed camps on the Hungarian border.

The Hungarian government introduced tough measures in April for foreign-registered universities, in a move that has been attacked by CEU as one of the gravest assaults on academic freedom since the end of the second world war.

Under the legislation, staff working at the CEU will in future require work permits, which the institution claims will limit its ability to hire staff. The government has also demanded that the university open a wing in in the US and no longer teach US-accredited courses.

After a meeting of the EU’s 28 commissioners, Valdis Dombrovskis, a European commission vice-president, said the first step of an infringement procedure would be taken on the grounds that the government was seeking to unlawfully breach a higher education institution’s right to exist and operate as a service.

He said: “A letter of formal notice is a first step in an infringement procedure but there is time for Hungarian authorities to react”.

The CEU was founded by Soros, a Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist, after the fall of communism in Hungary.

Michael Ignatieff, rector of the CEU, had accused Orbán of “holding a gun to my head”, through the recent legislation, which prompted 70,000 people to flood the streets of Budapest in protest this month.

Hungarian officials argue the changes mean the university would be treated in the same way as other higher education institutions in the country, with its status “unchanged”.

The university is accredited in New York state but has no campus there. Orbán says this gives CEU an unfair advantage over other Hungarian universities.