Tensions have been boiling for some time, but in recent days two events have made it clear that the issue can no longer be ignored.
On Wednesday this week, members of the European Parliament presented a lawsuit for the European Commission, the executive arm of the bloc, to deprive Hungary of its EU funding because it does not fulfill its obligations as a member state of the bloc. ‘EU.
While the case makes no mention of Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ laws, instead focusing on the country’s attacks on judicial independence, among other things, MEPs presenting the case made it clear to CNN that the two are related.
Katalin Csech, a Hungarian opposition MP, explained that the report “establishes the legal case” for the withdrawal of funding from the Orban government through what is called the rule of law mechanism, “on the basis of its endemic corruption “. She adds that corruption is “intimately linked to human rights violations like the recent attack on the LGBTI community” because “an independent judiciary should also protect the rights of LGBTI people”.
His German colleague, Daniel Freund, says the focus on the rule of law is part of a larger effort to create cumulative pressure on Budapest.
“If we can reduce their funding, which is the only language that Oran really understands, for his assaults on the justice system, then we hope we can use it to create cumulative pressure for EU treaty violations in d ‘other areas. ”
The new law is part of an erosion of LGBTQ rights that has been going on for years. Luca Dudits of the Háttér Society, a Hungarian LGBTQ rights group, points to a long list of crackdowns, ranging from a ban on same-sex marriage in 2011 to a ban on adoption for unmarried couples last year .
The reality of having an openly homophobic and transphobic government and little independent media remaining, Dudits explains, has created a dangerous “echo chamber” putting vulnerable people at serious risk of discrimination and violence.
“Invisibility means that there is no way that LGBTI people really feel that there is a safe environment to go out, and obviously this has an impact on social acceptance as well. It also affects mental health. , if you constantly hear that you are an immoral person who is a danger to children. ”
“Hateful rhetoric” in the block
Hungary is not the only EU country currently criticized for its treatment of LGBT people.
Karolina Gierdal, lawyer for Polish advocacy group Campaign Against Homophobia, told CNN that as long as “politicians can get away with their rhetoric and hateful actions, they are signaling to citizens that” harassing the LGBTQI community is not discrimination and that their homophobia or transphobia is justified and may be subject to action. “
Critics in Poland would like to see more action from Brussels. Sylwia Spurek, former deputy to the Polish equal treatment ombudsperson and now opposition MEP, believes that the current debate around the rule of law is too narrow “because everyone is talking about independence of justice, media freedom, a shrinking civic space. ”
She tries to convince the Commission to consider human rights as part of the rule of law. His argument is that Article 2 of the EU Treaty concerns respect “for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities ”.
Spurek believes that the violation of this part of the treaty is clearly a violation of the rule of law, which in itself is a reason for withdrawing EU funds from the Polish government.
The problems facing opponents of Poland and Hungary are that not everyone agrees on the legal point, whether the action that the Commission or the Council of the EU (represented by the governments elected from the 27 member states) could actually take is politically limited, and that the broader consequences of unilateral action could create an even greater mess.
“Everything is very tense. Several of the more liberal member states are uncomfortable asking their taxpayers to fund countries whose behavior they abhor, ”said an EU diplomat. These Member States want the Commission to act, “because the divisions between the Member States in the Council make any serious action very difficult, in particular in areas where unanimous votes are required”, added the diplomat.
Normally, divisions within the Council are characterized by narrow, often economic, national interests. When it comes to LGBT rights, the fury of more liberal member states is palpable.
During the closed session, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel sternly warned Orban: “My grandfather was Jewish, I am gay and I can live freely. And then I read this law. I know what happens when you turn people into a minority, ”according to a Luxembourg government official. And 17 member states ostensibly signed a letter to the presidents of the EU institutions, reiterating their support for human rights as stated in article 2.
For its part, the Commission fears that any unilateral action will backfire politically. “If the Commission starts to say that it wants to keep these countries’ money, they can say ‘listen, Brussels wants to hurt us and I am the best person to protect you’, thus strengthening their domestic political hold”, said a second EU official. Explain.
From the perspective of Hungary and Poland and their allies across Europe, they are simply showing “respect for Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage”.
According to a statement co-signed by the Hungarian and Polish governments and supporting parties elsewhere, the EU is becoming “a tool of radical forces” who want to erase national identity and replace it with “a European superstate” . Their statement said they wanted to ensure that their traditional values were present as the debate on the future of Europe entered a new phase.
This is where things get very complicated and somewhat existential for the block.
The fight for the heart of Europe
The words “the future of Europe” are often used by people in Brussels, but generally by people who are largely in favor of the EU becoming institutionally stronger and more centralized.
The fact that Poland, Hungary and their supporters, including French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and Italian populist Matteo Salvini, have issued a statement on their vision for the future of the EU is frightening for Europhiles .
Those who love Europe generally accept that it must evolve in order to survive.
“Currently, the union is not made for the challenges of the future. We can either go in the direction of a stronger Europe with more powers, or in the direction of a weaker Europe, which is fragmented.I firmly believe that [latter version of] Europe has no future, ”says Csech.
Spurek agrees that “if the Commission, the Council, have no determination to protect these values, there is no future for the European Union.”
So many of the problems facing Europe had been obscured by the unity Brexit offered the 27 as they faced a single enemy, despite the challenges that posed. With the United Kingdom gone, the fight for the heart of the European project is well underway.
There is no easy answer. “The EU must be both a set of shared values, but also flexible enough to accommodate all views on this dividing line,” says Ronan McCrea, professor of European law at University College of London.
This dividing line is often characterized as being East against West, old members against new ones. Many of those Member States that joined as former Soviet satellites had to make an effort to prove that they were ready to be part of the liberal, rules-based West. But as McCrea puts it, “The EU is like a nightclub with fierce bouncers on the doorstep but weak internal security. Once you’ve gone through the membership process and you’re there, you can. breaking the rules with much less serious consequences. “
The EU has always been good at solving problems in order to avoid disaster. However, most of its crises have been economic and overtly political. This degree of conflict over competing values and culture is fairly new territory. And what so panics in Brussels is that, unlike an economic or political crisis, they sincerely have no idea how it ultimately happens.