It’s Hungary vs. Everyone after attacks on LGBTQ+ rights

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LUXEMBOURG — Viktor Orbán is waging war on LGBTQ+ rights — and other EU governments are furious.  

New Hungarian legal changes banning the portrayal of homosexuality to minors caused anger at a meeting of EU ministers on Tuesday, with 14 countries endorsing a statement condemning Budapest’s move and urging the European Commission to take action. 

But unease at developments in Hungary has spread much further than the corridors of an EU meeting in Luxembourg.

A decision by European football’s governing body to turn down a request from authorities in Munich to light up its football stadium in rainbow colors during the Euro 2020 match between Germany and Hungary on Wednesday was greeted with dismay. The request was made “as a sign of tolerance and cosmopolitanism,” and as a pointed message to Orbán, Hungary’s football-obsessed prime minister. 

But in a statement on Tuesday, UEFA said: “Given the political context of this specific request — a message aiming at a decision taken by the Hungarian national parliament — UEFA must decline this request.”

Dieter Reiter, the center-left mayor of Munich, said UEFA’s decision was “shameful,” while Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth wrote on Twitter that the ruling was “bitter, but expected.”

But despite the exasperation of many European governments and the growing media attention, Orbán — who is facing an election in 2022 — is unlikely to suffer any significant consequences in the near term. 

In fact, the Hungarian government appears to welcome conflict with the EU over LGBTQ+ rights, with Justice Minister Judit Varga combatively defending the new legislation in a room where some ministers were gay and many others hold the firm belief that Hungary’s measures violate basic European principles. 

“Respect for our European values is not optional,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag in a statement. “Discriminating LGBTI persons under the pretext of protecting children is unacceptable in the EU.”

Tuesday’s discussion on the state of the rule of law in Hungary was formally part of the Article 7 process — a disciplinary procedure triggered nearly three years ago but which has produced no concrete results.

And while some governments have pinned their hopes on a new rule-of-law mechanism linking EU funding to respect for some democratic standards, it remains unclear when — and how — such a mechanism would be implemented. 

Nevertheless, Hungary’s new legislation making it illegal to portray and promote homosexuality and gender change to people under the age of 18 appears to have fueled new outrage at the government.  

“Certainly this was a turning point,” said one official from a northern EU state. “This was not about political liberalism or conservatism, this was about tolerance and individual rights. They did go too far. This was more than clear.”

While in the past EU ministers have expressed outrage at Hungarian policies, there was a sense among some officials that the new measures — which are far more tangible than complex issues such as judicial independence and media freedom — deepened concern about the state of affairs in Hungary.   

This was the “hardest member states have gone on Hungary,” said one EU diplomat, adding that the LGBTQ+ legislation “seems to have touched a nerve.” 

A second EU diplomat said “the Hungarian government has a way of talking about homosexuality that is deeply disturbing and upsetting.” 

Hungary’s Varga, however, insisted the new measures are about protecting children’s rights — and that it would merely be “propaganda” that would be banned. 

“This law does not deprive anyone in the society of their rights, this law is not discriminating against any member of the society,” she told a group of reporters following the meeting. 

“Please come to visit the Budapest Pride in July, so you can see it with your own eyes,” she said. 

During the ministers’ discussion, however, frustration with Hungary’s government was clear among officials from diverse backgrounds and political families. 

The statement condemning Hungary’s legislation as “a flagrant form of discrimination” was signed by Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. Italy later also endorsed the text. 

The Hungarians “crossed the line in many ways,” said one senior official from a southern EU nation, adding that Budapest “made everybody furious” about a number of issues and because of its “preaching” about family values. 

“It was very tense,” said one senior diplomat from an eastern EU country. 

Nevertheless, for some politicians, discussing Hungary’s rule of law woes did have value. 

“I was actually pleased that we were able to come back to the issue of Article 7 on Hungary and Poland,” Swedish Minister for European Affairs Hans Dahlgren told POLITICO. 

“The situation has not improved,” he said, adding that there was a frank discussion and that he does believe the process can lead to change. 

“It does make a difference — I think also in countries where people work day and night for these basic values — that they know that there are other countries in Europe that support and want them to go in the right direction.” 

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