Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ+ law is a litmus test for the EU

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Imre Szijarto is a Hungarian activist and writer living in Berlin.

Is this finally the time the European Union stands up to Viktor Orbán?

In the more than a decade the Hungarian prime minister has been in power, independent institutions, universities, the press and minority communities have all been under constant attack. This time, it’s Hungary’s LGBTQ+ community that’s in Orbán’s sights — but if the past is anything to go by, the EU is unlikely to do much about it.

The deployment of starvation tactics against asylum seekers in Hungarian detention facilities was not enough to trigger serious sanctions against the Orbán regime. Nor was the expulsion of the Central European University (CEU), amid an anti-Semitic smear campaign targeting its founder, George Soros.

In 2019, when I was picketing with my fellow students at our “besieged” university, Manfred Weber — then the European People’s Party candidate for Commission president — reassured us of his “concern” for academic freedom. In the end, however, this “concern” was not even enough for the expulsion of Orbán’s Fidesz party from the EU’s most powerful political group. (It was the Hungarian prime minister who ultimately broke ties with the EPP).

Now there’s a Putin-style anti-LGBTQ+ law in an EU member country. Where does this all stop?

I am writing this in a Berlin coffee shop, having left Hungary, like many of my friends, after the Central European University was forced to move to Vienna (an EU court ruling blocking the expulsion came too late to change anything). A Hungarian barista is preparing my cappuccino, as I write this. I sometimes wonder if we — citizens of EU nations that lay east of the Oder River — are considered sufficiently European enough for our rights to matter to the leaders of EU institutions and powerful member countries like Germany.

We are certainly European enough to pick asparagus in unsafe conditions, to fix pipes or to be exploited in Western Europe’s sex industry. But our rights seem to matter just enough to set up yet another committee that achieves nothing, publishes yet another report or expresses “deep concerns” about “worrying developments” in places like Hungary and Poland. And no more.

Hungary has never been a beacon of LGBTQ+ freedom. When, in 2013, I was subject to a violent attack on the streets of downtown Budapest, the police officers that arrived on the scene were sympathetic to the motives of the aggressors. They told me that kissing someone of the same gender was an “indecent act.”

Adding this toxic new law, which links homosexuality to pedophilia, on top of an already hostile environment, will not only restrict the freedom of expression of LGBTQ+ people and their allies; it could trigger a wave of violence — much like what we saw in Russia after the passing of a similar law emboldened the country’s neo-Nazis.

Another European betrayal would permanently deprive me of having a country to call home. It would also put the freedom and physical safety of the LGBTQ+ friends I left behind in danger.

How can the EU continue to call itself a “community of values” if it allows the blatant demonization of an already marginalized community and a clear violation of its Charter of Fundamental Rights? If the EU is to be anything more than a trading bloc, EU institutions, as well as individual member countries, must now use all the means at their disposal to apply maximum pressure on the Orbán regime until this disgraceful law is repealed.

Joint statements condemning the law, vague promises of “legal steps” or symbolic gestures like asking UEFA, in vain, to light up a football stadium in rainbow colors are all welcome, but they are unlikely to hurt the Orbán regime unless coupled with economic sanctions.

Making the distribution of EU funds conditional upon respect for human rights and the rule of law is long overdue. If there is one lesson to be learned from the failures of the last decade, it is that appeasement never works. And if he gets his way, Orbán will always push further.

Sanctions must hit the regime where it hurts. Failure to act will not just endanger LGBTQ+ people in Hungary — but also the EU as a political community of values as well. After all, what is the point of the EU if it can’t even defend its citizens’ most basic rights?

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