Viktor Orban left the harrowing 2 a.m. EU summit on Friday with a lecture on the meaning of Christianity from fellow European leaders ringing in his ears.
The standard bearer of “illiberal democracy” and traditional Christian values in Europe suffered two hours of harassment over his government’s bill to ban content that depicts or promotes LGBT people in schools and the media.
“If you really believe in God, you have to be tolerant,” said Krisjanis Karenz from Latvia. Hungarian leader, according to diplomats familiar with the discussion. Officials said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also criticized Urban’s legislation as a violation of Christian morals.
Diplomats described how EU leaders erupted at Hungary’s prime minister with a fervor rarely seen at European Council meetings, where presidents and prime ministers usually avoid personalizing their disputes.
Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who led the accusation, asked Orban to consider launching 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 Orbán’s violation of the rule of law, media freedom and minority rights had exploded after years in which he had escaped blame thanks to the support of the center-right European People’s Party and his main light, Angela of Germany. Merkel. But that support has now evaporated, and Merkel has lined up with other critics.
“This could really be a turning point,” said Clara Dobrev, a Hungarian opposition member of the European Parliament, adding that Budapest and Brussels were now at odds.
The backlash over the child sexual abuse bill, which many EU leaders said equated homosexuality with sexual crimes against children, appears to be the fault of Orbán, who spent years fighting with Brussels. At the end of the discussion, he complained of being “attacked” by all sides and asked his fellow leaders to think about how they felt.
A personal connection to gay rights may explain the reactions of some EU leaders. Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg told the Financial Times that Xavier Bettel gave a moving account of his struggle to be accepted as gay, which “made many cry”. Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, who is the daughter of a gay couple, called the debate “painful”.
“That was personal,” said one diplomat.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the controversy poses an “existential question for Europeans” that goes beyond the behavior of Orbán or his allies in Poland and Slovenia, the only two countries that have mobilized his defense.
“Today we have democratically elected leaders supported by their own people who are in the process of making decisions that go against the basic values of Europe,” Macron said. “It’s no small issue.”
Peter Kriko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest think tank, said Orban wanted to provoke a row with Brussels to divert attention from an unpopular plan to build a campus for Chinese Fudan University in Budapest.
Kriko said Orban also wanted to divide the opposition parties, which had vowed to form a united front against the prime minister’s Fidesz party in parliamentary elections next year. Jobbik, a far-right party allied to the opposition, supported the homosexuality amendments.
“Viktor Orban wants to fight the battle for Brussels Instead of fighting Fudan, Kriko said. ‘Government skepticism in Europe climbed into another path.’
The Hungarian leader has in recent weeks sharpened his anti-Brussels rhetoric, particularly with his speech last weekend when he called for the abolition of a directly elected European Parliament and warned that the European Union was turning into a Soviet “empire”. Orbán’s opponents say he is jeopardizing Hungary’s EU membership.
Aguston Mroz, chief executive of Nezopont, a research institute close to Fidesz, said Orbán’s claims that he wants to pull Hungary out of the EU are nonsense.
“It has to do with the type of membership and his vision of a union of nation states,” he said, noting that Orbán wanted to create A new political family of national parties After Fidesz was kicked out of the EPP earlier this year.
“It needs to create a new platform and polarize,” Maroz said.
Meanwhile, Brussels appears ready to take legal action. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said the Hungarian law was a “clear violation” of core values, but that Brussels needed to show there was a breach of specific EU laws, such as audio-visual or e-commerce legislation.
“It’s less clear when you see the situation,” Reynders said.
The Hungarian government says the law is not discriminatory because it also bans material that targets children and generally promotes sex. The legal battle could be lengthy and simply add to the list of other issues the EU is pursuing over other Hungarian violations of academic freedom, NGOs and immigration.
At the same time, Orbán’s opponents hope the EU’s financial clout can put him in line. The Commission is due to sign next week on Hungary’s plans to spend 7 billion euros of European Recovery Fund money. MEPs from the centrist group Renew Europe demanded that it withhold approval due to the child sexual abuse law.
Brussels is unlikely to acquiesce, but it can suspend payments if Hungary does not meet its economic reform commitments. The Commission also has new powers under a so-called rule of law conditional mechanism that allows it to suspend funds if it feels the rule of law in Hungary is threatened.
“The real battle will be if we can take advantage of the process to put pressure on him,” said one diplomat.
Dobrev, a Hungarian MEP, said it was imperative that such guarantees be published against Orbán’s government, raising the stakes in the confrontation. “Next year his campaign slogan will be ‘Urban or Europe for Hungary?'” Dobrev said. “What can he do?”