European Union leaders furiously confronted Hungary’s far-right leader Viktor Orban over a discriminatory law aimed at LGBTI people at a council of the 27 members in Brussels on Wednesday that saw unprecedented open calls for Budapest to leave the bloc outright if it rejects its rules.
The legislation, nominally about combatting paedophilia, bans the depiction of LGBT people and loosely-defined “gay propaganda” in content for children in a move seen as stoking a culture war as Hungary moves towards elections next year with opinion polls tight.
It has provoked outrage across much of the EU and even overshadowed the Euro 2020 tournament due to a row over the rainbow flag, which saw local councils across Europe light up buildings in the Pride colours and the European Parliament fly the banner as leaders arrived for the summit.
Frustration towards Hungary had been steadily building due to the Orban government’s erosion of democratic freedoms and repeated blocking of EU conclusions on human rights issues, and spilled into passionate confrontation as the leaders met to discuss Covid-19, migration, and relations with Russia.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte asked Mr Orban outright why Hungary did not leave the EU if it rejected the bloc’s laws, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, suggesting that Budapest could use Article 50 to leave the union – stark language rarely if ever heard at a European Council.
In an impassioned intervention, Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel spoke of his personal story, explaining that he did not choose to be gay and calling the law a “red line” as it breached basic rights.
“The most difficult thing for me was to accept myself, when I realised I was in love with a person of my sex, how to say it to my parents . . . We have a lot of young people who do suicides because they do not accept who they are,” Mr Bettel told journalists ahead of the summit.
“Being gay is not a choice, but being intolerant is a choice, and I will stay intolerant against intolerance. This will be today, my fight.”
“We’re extremely annoyed and angry with what is transpiring within Hungary, and it’s causing a lot of disquiet in Ireland and across the European Union because it transgresses fundamental values of what the union stands for, and is unacceptable in terms of its impact on young people in Hungary,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin told journalists.
Multiple leaders accused Mr Orban of using the divisive law for political gain ahead of the elections. Only Poland and Slovenia, where allied and likeminded right-wing populists rule, stood by Hungary at the summit.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, in Brussels on Thursday. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu/Bloomberg
The Orban government responded furiously to the suggestion that Hungary should leave the EU. Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga accused the Dutch prime minister of “political blackmailing” and said that her country did not wish to leave the EU but instead “save it from hypocrites”.
In a Facebook post, she accused Mr Rutte of “old colonial arrogance” and said he had “written himself out of the circle of civilised people”.
Hungary and the Netherlands have clashed at previous EU summits, with the Dutch leading demands for tougher rules about EU funds, which Mr Orban’s critics accuse him of using to enrich a circle of cronies and entrench his power.
The stakes have risen with the EU about to begin doling out large sums of Covid-19 recovery funds, which the Dutch and other member states have insisted must be withheld from countries that breach the rule of law.