The EU launched legal action against Hungary on Wednesday in a major confrontation with Prime Minister Viktor Orban over a law that could shut a university founded by US billionaire George Soros.
The step by the European Commission came hours before the rightwing premier was due to address the European parliament to defend his country's rights record.
European Commission President Valdis Dombrovskis said Wednesday that the EU's executive arm has sent a "letter of formal notice" to Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, which is a first step in legal action. The Hungarian government will have one month to respond, and based on Budapest's reaction, the Commission will consider what steps to take next. "We have decided to take legal action on the higher education law by sending a letter of formal notice to the Hungarian government," Dombrovskis said at a news conference.
"There is time for the Hungarian authorities to react and then following reactions, the commission will decide on the next steps," Dombrovskis said.
The decision was based on an "in-depth legal assessment" and involved alleged breaches of fundamental EU laws governing the freedom to set up businesses and services, he said.
Orban has sparked deep unease over legislation that could force the closure of the Central European University in Budapest, founded by US billionaire investor George Soros. The higher education law was approved earlier this month. The president of the Soros-backed Central European University says it means that his campus in Budapest might not be able to accept new students after Jan. 1.
Orban says the CEU is "cheating" because it issues diplomas accepted both in the United States and in Hungary, where it has been operating since 1993. The university is accredited in New York state but has no campus there. He says this gives it an unfair advantage over other Hungarian universities.
The announcement marks a new low in the tense relations between Brussels and Budapest over the government's rights record.
The EU expressed deep concern over Hungarian plans to tighten government control over academic freedoms, migrants and nongovernmental organizations.
The key issue in recent weeks has been the Central European University, often seen as a beacon of the liberal EU values so often derided by Orban.
His government has also handed out a questionnaire entitled "Let's stop Brussels!" asking households how to deal with EU policies that it says threaten Hungary's independence. Hungary's parliament has separately sparked an international outcry after approving a law last month for the systematic detention of all asylum seekers in camps on the border composed of shipping containers.
Dombrovskis said the EU would "continue our dialogue with Hungarian authorities on outstanding concerns" over the asylum law and the NGO law.
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, who has sharply criticized Orban's moves, is due to meet Soros today in Brussels.