28th Jul 2021

EU leaders confront Orbán on anti-LGBTIQ law

  • Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán at the European Council in May. He is arguing that the controversial legislation is not discriminatory (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Frustration with Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán boiled over on Thursday evening (24 June) at the EU leaders' summit in Brussels.

The latest irritation was a series of amendments on child protection that included measures that the EU Commission and a majority of EU leaders said were discriminatory against LGBTIQ people.

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  • Luxembourg's premier arriving to a previous EU summit. "Being intolerant is a choice," he told press ahead of the June European Council (Photo: Council of the European Union)

It came after a decade of concerns over democratic backsliding in Hungary, and as the Orbán government often stymied common positions on China, Israel, climate, migration, and gender policy.

At a passionate two-and-a-half-hour debate, Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel, the only openly gay person in the European Council, started with a personal account on how parts of his family struggled with him being gay.

"I did not become gay. I am, it is not a choice. You see how many young LGBTIQ commit suicide. This is very bad. This [the legislation] is stigmatising," Bettel said, referring to the law, according to a diplomatic source.

"I respect you, but this is a red line. It is about basic rights, it is about the right to be different," Bettel told Orbán.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte asked Orbán: "Viktor, if you do this, why do you stay in the EU?"

Portuguese prime minister António Costa pointed out that it's possible to have just an economic relationship with the EU, like Norway and Switzerland. "But if you join, you have to play by the rules and values," he said.

"The EU is not an empire in the making like the Soviet Union," Costa told Orbán, who often compares the federalist ambitions in parts of the EU as empire-building, and had likened Brussels to Moscow.

German chancellor Angela Merkel warned Orbán that "you cannot mix homosexuality with paedophilia", and that there is "no compromise on human dignity".

Orbán, for his part, said he did not understand why other leaders were so upset. The legislation was about protecting children and families, he argued, and accused other leaders of not having read the law.

But Bettel replied he had done so, according to an EU source.

Meanwhile, Poland's premier Mateusz Morawiecki and Slovenia's PM Janez Janša backed Orbán.

And Orbán did not address Rutte's calls on why Hungary does not leave the EU.

His justice minister, Judit Varga, took to twitter to say Rutte's comments were "political blackmail", however. "Hungary doesn't want to leave the EU. On the contrary, we want to save it from hypocrites," she wrote.

There was no clear direction where leaders would take this debate further, but it was raised that the Conference on the Future of Europe was a good place to discuss European values.

Orbán had already outlined his vision for the future of the EU last week in a speech, where he said the European Parliament should consist of national parliaments' delegates, that national legislations should be able to halt EU legislation, and that the phrase "ever closer union" should be deleted from the EU treaty as soon as possible.

A heated debate and EU leaders' onslaught against one of their peers is very rare at EU summits.

Club with rules

Earlier on Thursday, Rutte also said, arriving at the summit, that the Budapest government must repeal the legislation.

"It is important that in this part of the world you can be who you are and live the life you want to live, and that you will never have to be afraid because of your gender, sexual orientation or the color of your skin. Everyone is equal," he said.

"This is a fundamental principle. If we let that go, the EU is just a trading bloc and no longer a community of values," Rutte added.

Rutte said he felt "ashamed" when he demanded EU-candidate countries Albania or North Macedonia to adhere to EU values such as non-discrimination, and in the meantime one of the 27 members violated the rules.

"The EU is a club with rules. You can't say: 'I want the funding, but I'll ignore the rules'. They've gone too far, 17 EU countries have taken a clear position, saying this is going too far," Alexander De Croo, Belgium's prime minister also said when arriving.

"It [the law] is blatant discrimination. In addition, as soon as you start discriminating against LGBTQ, it will end with silencing everyone who doesn't like your opinion," De Croo said.

Orbán said the legislation will not be repealed.

"We don't have that kind of law, we have a law defending the rights of kids and parents," he said when arriving to the summit, adding: "It is not about homosexuality".

Referring to his credentials as an anti-communist student leader, Orbán said he was also fighting for the rights and freedoms of homosexuals.

"I am defending the rights of the homosexual guys, but this law is not about that," he said, adding, that the legislation is about parents' rights to decide about the sexual education of their children.

The legislation, that was signed into law on Wednesday, prohibits the portrayal of homosexuality to minors and in school sexual education curriculums.

Raw nerve

There is little more the EU can do on the specific legislation.

On Wednesday, the commission said the new legislation infringes EU law - the EU's charter on fundamental rights, the audiovisual and e-commernce rules- and could take legal action.

The EU executive can launch a so-called infringement procedure, which could end up in court and force Hungary to amend the law in a few years.

The EU has a new tool, linking the use of EU funds to the respect for the rule of law, but that is unlikely to be launched before the autumn. The European Parliament told the commission to take action or else, the executive will be taken to court.

Hungary is already under the 'Article 7' sanctions procedure for concerns over democratic backsliding, media freedom and judicial independence.

EU leaders, however, never held a debate on the issue. It was not an the official agenda on Thursday either.

Frustration has been building among EU leaders with the increasingly bellicose and nationalist Orbán, who is facing elections next spring.

Despite the years of concerns over attacks on NGOs, shrinking media freedom, a judiciary under political pressure, this issue seems to have struck a nerve with the majority of EU leaders.

Bettel told press before the meeting that he will be "intolerant to intolerance".

"If he [Orbán] really thinks that by watching a film, or to speak in the classroom about sexual orientation makes you gay, then he really doesn't understand anything," Bettel said, recalling that "it was the most difficult" thing in his life to accept himself as gay.

"Being gay is not a choice, but being intolerant is a choice," he added.

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