Viktor Orban left a bruising EU summit at 2am on Friday with a lecture on the meaning of Christianity from fellow European leaders ringing in his ears.
The self-proclaimed standard bearer of “illiberal democracy” and traditional Christian values in Europe endured two hours of being upbraided over his government’s bill to ban content depicting or promoting LGBTI+ people in schools and the media.
“If you truly believe in God, you have to be tolerant”, Latvia’s Krisjanis Karins told the Hungarian leader, according to diplomats familiar with the discussion. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi also slammed Orban’s legislation as a violation of Christian ethics, officials said.
Diplomats described how EU leaders tore into Hungary’s premier with a vehemence rarely seen in European Council meetings, where presidents and prime ministers usually eschew personalising their disputes.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who led the charge, even asked Orban to consider triggering the Article 50 exit process to leave the bloc if he was unwilling to repeal the legislation.
It was as if pent-up anger over Orban’s flouting of the rule of law, media freedom and minority rights had exploded after years in which he had escaped censure thanks to support from the centre-right European People’s party and its leading light, Germany’s Angela Merkel. But that support has now evaporated, and Merkel lined up with the other critics.
“This could really be a turning point,” said Klara Dobrev, a Hungarian opposition member of the European parliament, adding that Budapest and Brussels were now locked into confrontation.
The backlash over the paedophilia bill, which several EU leaders said equated being gay with sexual offences against children, appeared to wrongfoot Orban, who has spent years picking fights with Brussels. At the end of the discussion, he complained of being “attacked” from all sides and asked his fellow leaders to consider how they would feel.
Personal attachment to gay rights may explain some EU leaders’ reactions. Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel gave a moving account of his struggles to be accepted as gay that “bought many to tears”, Rutte told the Financial Times. Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, the daughter of a gay couple, called the debate “painful”.
“This was personal”, said one diplomat.
French president Emmanuel Macron said the controversy posed an “existential question for Europeans” that went beyond the conduct of Orban or his allies in Poland and Slovenia, the only countries to rally to his defence.
“Today we have democratically elected leaders supported by their people who are in the process of taking decisions that contravene the fundamental values of Europe,” Macron said. “It is no small issue”.
Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a research outfit in Budapest, said Orban had wanted to cause a row with Brussels to distract attention from an unpopular plan to build a campus for China’s Fudan University in Budapest.
Orban also wanted to divide the opposition parties which have vowed to present a united front against the premier’s Fidesz party in parliamentary elections next year, Kreko said. Jobbik, a far right party aligned with the opposition, backed the homosexuality amendments.
“Viktor Orban wants to fight the Brussels fight instead of fighting the Fudan fight,” Kreko said. “The Euroscepticism of the government has stepped up into another gear.”
The Hungarian leader has in recent weeks sharpened his anti-Brussels rhetoric, notably with a speech last weekend when he called for the abolition of a directly elected European parliament and warned that the EU was turning into the Soviet “empire”. Orban’s opponents say he is putting Hungary’s EU membership a risk.
Agoston Mroz, the chief executive of Nezopont, a research institute close to Fidesz, said claims Orban wants to pull Hungary out of the EU were rubbish.
“It is about the kind of membership and his vision of a union of nation states,” he said, pointing out that Orban wanted to create a new political family for nationalist parties after Fidesz was pushed out of the EPP earlier this year.
“He needs to create a new platform and to polarise,” Mroz said.
Meanwhile, Brussels looks set to take legal action. Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, said the Hungarian law was “a clear violation” of fundamental values, but Brussels needed to show there was breach of a specific EU laws, such as audiovisual or ecommerce legislation.
“This is less evident when you see the situation,” Reynders said.
The Hungarian government says the law is not discriminatory because it also bans material aimed at children that promotes sexuality in general. The legal battle could be protracted and simply add to the list of other cases the EU is pursuing on other Hungarian breaches relating to academic freedom, NGOs and immigration.
At the same time, Orban’s opponents hope the EU’s financial leverage could bring him into line. The commission is due next week to sign off on Hungary’s plans to spend €7bn of EU recovery fund money. MEPs from the centrist Renew Europe group have demanded it withhold approval due to the paedophilia law.
Brussels is unlikely to acquiesce but it can suspend disbursements if economic reform commitments are not met by Hungary. The commission also has new powers under the so-called rule of law conditionality mechanism allowing it to suspend funds if it feels the rule of law in Hungary is under threat.
“The real fight will be if we can leverage the process to put pressure on him”, said one diplomat.
Dobrev, the Hungarian MEP, said it was inevitable these safeguards would be deployed against Orban’s government, raising the stakes in the confrontation. “Next year, his campaign slogan will be ‘Orban or Europe for Hungary?’” Dobrev said. “What else can he do?”
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