BUDAPEST: Hungary told European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans to quit on Friday after he was quoted suggesting Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s animosity towards billionaire George Soros was driven by anti-Semitism.
Hungary’s foreign ministry said Timmermans “should resign from his post after having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism”.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the comments were an “unfounded accusation” and that Hungary “has done more than anyone in Europe to combat anti-Semitism,” according to a statement.
It added that Budapest “has major issues” with Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist Soros, but that “these disputes have absolutely nothing to do with George Soros’s origins or religion.”
Orban last week told the European Parliament that Soros was an “American financial speculator attacking Hungary” and that he has “destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.”
Asked in an interview with Germany weekly Die Zeit published on Thursday whether he thought the comments sounded anti-Semitic, Timmermans had said: “I understood that in exactly the same way as you and was appalled.”
A European Commission spokeswoman said Timmermans had interpreted Orban’s speech as “a provocation.”
“We need to refrain from using ambiguous expressions in the future in order to keep misunderstandings from arising,” she added.
Orban was in Brussels last week to defend education legislation that the Central European University in Budapest, a highly respected institution founded by Soros, believes is aimed at forcing it to close.
The legislation has drawn street protests and international concern including from the US State Department and an open letter signed by more than 900 academics around the world.
Orban has accused the university, set up in 1991 after the fall of communism, of “cheating” and of having an “unfair advantage” over local institutions—allegations rejected by the CEU as “defamatory”.
Orban’s government also aims to oblige non-governmental organizations receiving above a certain amount of foreign funding to register and stamp any publication with “foreign-funded organization.”
Mirroring similar rules in Russia, this is also seen as targeting Soros’s Open Society Foundation which funds civil society groups and which has also come under fire elsewhere in the region.
Orban, a strong admirer of US President Donald Trump, has long accused Soros, 86, of seeking to undermine Europe by backing immigration, calling it the “Trojan horse of terrorism.”