EU lawmakers want action against Hungary after law targets Soros

Demonstrators hold up a banner saying "Veto" during a rally against a new law passed by Hungarian parliament which could force the Soros-founded Central European University out of Hungary, in Budapest, Hungary, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

By Francesco Guarascio and Marton Dunai STRASBOURG/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A group representing a majority of European Union lawmakers said on Wednesday they wanted the European Parliament to start disciplinary proceedings against Hungary after a crackdown on foreign universities pushed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Hungary's parliament approved a law on Tuesday that could force out a university founded by financier George Soros - the Central European University (CEU) - despite international condemnation and protests by thousands of Hungarians. Also on Wednesday, Orban's Fidesz party said it would present a bill to parliament this week that requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with a yearly foreign income of 7.2 million forints ($25,000) to register with authorities. "Support from unknown foreign sources could allow foreign interest groups to pursue their own interests via the influence of these (NGOs) in Hungary ... which threatens the country's political and economic interests," the bill says. NGOs, many of whom receive grants from Soros' Open Society Foundation, often speak up on behalf of migrants, clashing with the view expressed by Orban and other eastern European leaders that migration is an existential threat. "Like Fidesz crossed a red line yesterday with the CEU bill so they did again with the NGO's," Akos Hadhazy, a lawmaker from the opposition green-liberal LMP party, told Reuters. "Sadly the red lines are so many they look like a red carpet by now." "This is a dirty little law," Hadhazy said. "All it does is mark the government's least favorite NGOs with a yellow star," he said, referring to Jews being required to wear stars on their clothes under the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union said the law was "unnecessary" from a legislative perspective. However, Fidesz has a parliamentary majority and can pass laws on its own. In Strasbourg, European lawmakers (MEPs) from all leftist groupings, liberals and some from the conservative European People's Party (EPP), the largest grouping in the parliament, said they wanted action taken against Hungary. DISCIPLINE A disciplinary procedure can mean suspension of an EU state's voting rights, but such an action has never been taken. The start of a procedure would also require two-thirds of the chamber to support the start of such a procedure, a threshold that would not be reached if enough of the EPP does not back the measure. Orban's Fidesz party is a member of the EPP, which has so far opposed taking action against Hungary. An official from the group said that it was too early to consider such a move. The EU Commission or the European Council could also start a disciplinary procedure but have been reluctant to do so as it could fuel anti-EU feelings at a time when the EU is grappling with Britain's departure and rising euroskepticism. On Wednesday, the Commission said it was studying the new Hungarian law on university funding and that it would discuss it in a meeting of commissioners next week. The Polish government has been rebuked on several occasions by Brussels for reforms of the judiciary, but the Commission has so far fallen short of starting a disciplinary procedure, and resorted instead to monitoring Polish reforms. The conservative MEPs who support starting the procedure against Hungary are from Poland's Civic Platform party, the same as EU summits chair Donald Tusk, who strongly oppose the Law and Justice (PiS) party which is in power in Poland. (Additional reporting by Krizstina Than in Budapest, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Editing by Louise Ireland)