Hungary will not change a controversial higher education law a government official said Thursday, despite an EU threat of legal action over fears it targets a prestigious university founded by US billionaire George Soros.
The European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, last month launched a so-called infringement action against Hungary over revisions to its education law which were fast-tracked through parliament last month.
It gave Budapest until Thursday to respond to questions in its "letter of formal notice" or face being taken to court.
"The European Commission has not provided one single argument why the law should be modified," Janos Lazar, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief-of-staff, told a press briefing.
The Commission alleged that the new legislation targets the Central European University (CEU) founded by Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros, and that it breaches fundamental EU free-market laws as well as the right of academic freedom.
The government has denied the allegations and says it wants to remove advantages enjoyed by some foreign-based institutions.
The law requires foreign colleges and universities to operate on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement and to have a campus in the country in which they are based.
Set up in 1991 by Soros to foster democratic values after the end of communism, the English-language and Budapest-based CEU attracts students from 117 countries, but has long been seen as a hostile bastion of liberalism by Orban's right-wing government.
"(Soros) lobbied well in Brussels, he has managed to mobilise the European Commission and the European Parliament," Lazar said Thursday.
Chartered by the State of New York, the CEU has just one campus, in Budapest, where its continued operation would be made "impossible" by the new law according to the CEU rector Michael Ignatieff.
"The Orban regime can't stand free institutions," he told AFP last month.
The bill has sparked large street protests in Budapest and international condemnation including from universities, academics, and Nobel prizewinners around the world.
Budapest has insisted that under the new law an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the US federal administration is required to let the CEU keep its operating license.
The US State Department said this week however that the US government has "no authority or intention to enter into negotiations" over the CEU, and that education is not a matter for the federal administration.
In a statement it urged Budapest to "suspend implementation" of the law which it said "places discriminatory, onerous requirements on US-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence".
New York state governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he is "ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government" to keep open "a treasured resource for students around the world".
The government was ready to listen to what Cuomo has to say as a "matter of courtesy", Lazar said.