By Gabriela Baczynska and Lily Cusack
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive on Thursday stepped up its pressure on the nationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary over its treatment of immigrants, non-governmental groups and a prominent university.
Orban has been locked in a series of running battles with the EU, where Western states and the Brussels-based executive Commission decry what they see as his authoritarian leanings, the squeezing of the opposition and the free media.
In a series of legal announcements, the European Commission said it was taking Budapest to the bloc's top court, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice, over its NGO laws as well as a higher education law that targets a university founded by U.S. financier George Soros, a public enemy of Orban.
"Brussels, influenced by the Soros Empire, has released a burst of fire on Hungary. The legal procedures are now openly used as tools of political blackmail and exerting pressure," Orban's Fidesz party said in reaction to the announcements.
Brussels also confirmed it was taking Hungary - along with eastern EU peers Poland and the Czech Republic - to the tribunal over refusing to host asylum-seekers under an EU-wide quota system. The ECJ cases could lead to financial penalties but take months, or years, to conclude.
The Commission has also stepped up its legal case against Budapest over Hungary's asylum laws.
Separately, European lawmakers were debating on Thursday whether the rule of law and democratic standards in Hungary were under threat more generally, and to an extent that would merit the triggering of an unprecedented EU punishment against Budapest.
The so-called Article 7 procedure would shame Orban by denouncing his government as undemocratic and could even lead to the maximum - though practically highly unlikely - sanction of stripping Hungary of its voting rights in the EU.
Hungary's case has been the first time the European Parliament has called for the launching the Article 7 mechanism.
At the debate in one of parliament's committees, some lawmakers said Orban was making untruthful accusations against the EU and diverging from European values with his brand of "illiberal democracy".
Even before the debate, Orban's spokesman Zoltan Kovacs likened it to an amalgamation of a medieval witch hunt and communist-era show trial.
The Commission's First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, however, made clear the executive arm did not side with the parliament's broader and at times tougher view of Hungary.
"We believe that we are dealing with very specific issues where we have disagreements with the Hungarian government," Timmermans told a news conference.
"The situation in Hungary is not in that sense comparable to the systemic threats to the rule of law which we see in Poland," he said of Orban's closest EU ally, the eurosceptic, nationalist Polish government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party.
In power for two years, PiS has sought to replicate some of ideas Orban has introduced over his seven years in office.
The party's moves on the courts and the media have provoked concern elsewhere in the EU that the biggest ex-communist member in the bloc is backpedalling on democracy and the rule of law. Warsaw faces its own Article 7 proceedings from the Commission.
Warsaw and Budapest, which share a broad world view that often goes against the more liberal one of the western EU states, have each other's back in their battles with the bloc and have vowed to shield one another from any sanctions.
(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)