World

George Soros school in Hungary plans to relocate to Vienna due to hostile climate

Hungary's Central European University, a graduate school founded by U.S. hedge fund manager and liberal cause philanthropist George Soros, said it was being forced out of the country by the nationalist government and would switch to enrolling new students in Vienna if it did not get guarantees of academic freedom by Dec. 1.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban has accused Soros of financing flow of migrants into Europe

"We are being forced out of a country that has been our home for 26 years," Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of Hungary's Central European University, told a news conference Thursday. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Hungary's Central European University, a graduate school founded by U.S. hedge fund manager and liberal cause philanthropist George Soros, said it was being forced out of the country by the nationalist government and would switch to enrolling new students in Vienna if it did not get guarantees of academic freedom by Dec. 1.

The U.S. billionaire, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, has been the subject of a campaign by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Earlier this year, his charitable Open Society Foundations was forced to leave Hungary.

Thursday's announcement by CEU could deepen a rift between Orban and the European Commission, which has challenged his higher education reforms in the European Court of Justice.

Soros has been among a number of prominent liberals, Democratic politicians and Donald Trump critics who this week have been the target of suspicious packages. The first of the crude bombs was delivered to the Katonah, N.Y., residence of Soros and discovered by one of his employees.

A change last year to national law on education that withdrew the right to operate from foreign-registered universities that didn't also offer courses in their home country was widely seen as explicitly targeting CEU.

The CEU offers graduate-level courses taught in English and is frequently ranked as the top university in Hungary. The prospect last year that it might be driven from Hungary drew street protests and international criticism.

A man rides his moped past a Hungarian government billboard displaying George Soros, founder of the CEU, in a critical light in a 2017 file photo in Szolnok. Soros is among a number of prominent liberals who were sent suspicious packages in the U.S. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The university's statement on Thursday said the Orban government had kept it in legal limbo for more than a year by failing to reach a formal agreement on its status.

"We cannot operate legally in Hungary as a free, U.S. accredited institution. We are being forced out of a country that has been our home for 26 years," Michael Ignatieff, CEU's president and rector, told a news conference.

Orban regularly accuses the Hungarian-born Soros of plotting to destroy European civilization by flooding the continent with immigrants. Soros says his support for refugees is one part of a wider humanitarian mission to back open societies around the globe.

U.S. official expresses concern

The government said Thursday's CEU announcement is "a Soros-style political ploy," and it does not concern itself with such matters.

U.S. Ambassador to Budapest David B. Cornstein said in a statement that the CEU remained a priority for the U.S. government and had overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, seen earlier this week, has solidified his grip on power in the past year, with his government introducing legistlation that has been characterized as the Stop Soros bill. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

"There is a small window to resolve this, but it needs to happen fast," he said.

The government accuses the CEU of operating without full legal compliance. CEU says it has taken all steps required to comply.

The statement by the university said it would enrol new students in U.S. degrees at its Vienna campus in 2019 if its legal status in Hungary was not resolved by Dec. 1, though it would try to maintain as much research and educational activity in Budapest as possible.

CEU's board of trustees set the December deadline to give a chance for Cornstein to make a final effort to work out a compromise, said Ignatieff, who led the Liberal Party in Canada from 2008-2011.

Soros, born to Jewish parents in Hungary but a resident of the U.S., is also a frequent target of far right conservatives in America, and the subject of several conspiracy theories.

Recently, conservative critics have, without evidence, accused him of secretly financing a caravan of Central American migrants to make their way north toward the U.S., while Trump himself tweeted the suggestion that "Soros and others" were behind the "rude elevator screamers" and activists who protested Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings.

Others have falsely accused him of being a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War when he was a child in Hungary, including Roseanne Barr in a tweetstorm that led to her firing from her hit comeback television show.

With files from The Associated Press

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