EU leaders to confront Hungary’s Viktor Orbán over LGBTQ+ rights
European Union 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 the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
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 on Wednesday between the Hungarian prime minister and many of his counterparts at an EU summit in Brussels.
Hungary’s parliament last week adopted a bill that will ban gay people from being shown in educational materials, on prime-time TV, or 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.
The issue could overshadow the meeting, where leaders are scheduled to discuss the bloc’s pandemic response, and thrash out a dispute on how to deal with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
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 row follows Orbán’s decision to cancel a trip to Munich to watch Germany play Hungary in a Euro 2020 football match, 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 told reporters. “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 migrants.
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.