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Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Central European University, attends a news conference after the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban tabled a new bill that could force the 25-year-old school out of Hungary, in Budapest, Hungary March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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By Farah Salhi

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The head of a Budapest university pressured by Prime Minister Viktor Orban appealed to Brussels for help on Tuesday, a day before European Union lawmakers were to discuss concerns about the Hungarian leader.

Central European University (CEU) President Michael Ignatieff, former head of Canada's Liberal Party, told a meeting in the EU's political capital he was determined to defend the institution founded by the liberal U.S. financier George Soros.

The EU's executive European Commission has threatened Hungary with legal action over Orban's drive to gain control over independent institutions, which many in the EU worry run against their shared values on human rights and democracy.

The university, which defends the Hungarian-born financier's "open society" outlook that Orban opposes, has already won the backing of officials in the United States and elsewhere.

"I need the support of Europe. I have support in Washington, I have support in Berlin, I have support in Budapest, I got support in Munich," Ignatieff told the meeting.

"It's now time to get some support in Brussels," the Canadian scholar said.

The threat to the CEU was triggered by new education laws adopted despite mass street protests that tightened controls on foreign universities operating in Hungary.

The CEU has stood as a bulwark of liberal thinking in Hungary and across eastern Europe since it was first opened in 1991 after Soviet-backed communism collapsed in the region.

Orban's government has said the legal changes were needed to prevent foreign universities from issuing dubious diplomas.

But Orban critics say the move against the CEU is part of a broader push to stifle dissenting voices and put independent institutions - including the judiciary, media and non-governmental groups (NGOs) - under closer government control.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has repeatedly clashed with NGOs funded by Soros, who champions the internationalist open societies the more nationalist-minded Hungarian dislikes.

The EU has become increasingly worried about Orban, with other grievances including his policies on migration and energy.

"The Hungarian government wants to remain a member of the EU without accepting any of the EU's basics values. The only thing that it's happy to accept is EU funding," Marta Pardavi, president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told Reuters.

"This is becoming an unpredictable and very hostile climate for civil society in an EU member state."

The scope of EU action against Hungary is limited, however, as any sever punishment would require the unanimous backing of all the other member states. Orban could count on his allies in the current Polish government to oppose that.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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