EU leaders to confront Hungary’s Viktor Orbán over LGBTQ+ rights | Hungary

EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have signed a letter vowing to fight discrimination towards lesbian, gay, bisexual...


EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have signed a letter vowing to fight discrimination towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, before an expected confrontation with Viktor Orbán over a Hungarian law widely condemned as an assault on LGBTQ+ rights.

The letter published on Thursday does not mention Hungary explicitly, but the timing is no accident and the stage is set for a tense encounter between the Hungarian prime minister and many of his counterparts at an EU summit in Brussels where there is also a clash over a Franco-German plan to hold a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Last week Hungary’s parliament adopted a bill that will ban gay people from being shown in educational materials, on prime-time TV or in shows and films aimed at children. The government claims the law is intended to protect children, but campaigners and the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner say those arguments are “misleading and false”.

Addressed to the leaders of the EU institutions, before LGBTQ+ Pride day on 28 June, the EU letter warns of “threats against fundamental rights and in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation”.

The Pride festival “will be a day to remember that we are diverse and tolerant societies committed to the unhindered development of the personality of each one of our citizens, including their sexual orientation and gender identity”, states the letter, signed by a majority of EU leaders including Macron, Merkel and Italy’s Mario Draghi, on the initiative of Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez.

Bettel, the first EU leader to be married to a same-sex partner, has previously called out Arab leaders for the repression of gay people, but this may be the first time a dispute over LGBTQ+ rights has arisen at a European summit.

Charles Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who chairs EU summits, “considers it important that this point [the LGBTQ+ law] is discussed”, said a senior EU official. “It’s a point that has created much emotion.”

The issue threatens to overshadow the meeting, where leaders are scheduled to discuss the bloc’s pandemic response and thrash out a dispute on how to deal with Putin. A proposal from Macron and Merkel for a meeting between the Russian president and all 27 EU leaders has been rebuked by eastern European countries.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from the Baltic states. “Right now the way it is proposed is that Russia annexes Crimea, Russia wages war in Donbass and Europe shrugs its shoulders and continues to try to speak a dialogue,” said Latvia’s prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš. “The Kremlin does not understand this kind of politics.”

Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, said talking to Putin was “like we try to engage the bear to keep a pot of honey safe”.

Arriving at the summit, Macron defended the idea of a dialogue, arguing it was necessary for the stability of the European continent. “We cannot permanently stay in a reactive logic vis-a-vis Russia.”

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said he was not opposed to a summit between Putin and the presidents of the EU institutions, but would not take part in any bigger gathering. Asked why, he said: “MH17,” referring to the plane brought down over eastern Ukraine by a Russian missile, killing 298 people, many of whom were Dutch.

Tensions over Russia and the intra-EU dispute with Hungary mean the summit could run well behind schedule. The LGBT row follows Orbán’s decision to cancel a trip to Munich to watch Hungary play Germany at Euro 2020, after a debate about lighting the stadium in rainbow colours.

The Hungarian government is also embroiled in a war of words with the European Commission after its president, Ursula von der Leyen, denounced the bill as “a shame”. Von der Leyen has instructed her team to send the Hungarian government a letter “to express our legal concerns before the bill enters into force” and vowed to use all the commission’s powers to uphold the rights of EU citizens.

“This bill clearly discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation,” Von der Leyen said on Wednesday. “I strongly believe in a European Union where you are free to love whom you want.”

A few hours later the Hungarian government countered that Von der Leyen’s statement was “a shame because it publishes a biased political opinion without a previously conducted, impartial inquiry”.

Orbán defended the law on arrival in Brussels, declaring himself a fighter for LGBTQ+ rights and saying he had no plans to repeal it.

“I am a fighter for their rights. I am a freedom fighter in the communist regime. Homosexuality was punished and I fought for their freedom and their rights. So I am defending the rights of the homosexual guys, but this law is not about that,” he said. “The law is about to decide what kind of way parents would like to sexually educate the kids.”

Hungary has curbed LGBTQ+ rights in the last 12 months, fuelling fears that gay people are the latest scapegoats for a government that has long stigmatised immigrants.

Hungarian human rights campaigners fear a mental health crisis among young gay people as a result of the law, which is seen as a green light to discriminate. People who have analysed the bill say a TV show such as Friends would be relegated to a late-night slot because the presence of gay characters would be deemed to promote homosexuality.

But it was not until this week that EU governments spoke out in force: 17 member states have now signed a statement denouncing the Hungarian bill as “a flagrant form of discrimination” that “deserves to be condemned”.

Largely signed by the same group of countries putting their names to Thursday’s letter, the interventions reveal Orbán’s growing isolation in the EU council, although the Hungarian leader retains the support of his idealogical soulmates in Poland.

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