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Hungary anti-LGBTQ law dispute overshadows EU summit

June 24, 2021

The European Commission and Hungary are at loggerheads over the discrimination of the LGBTQ community. The colors of the Pride rainbow were on conspicuous display in Brussels. Bernd Riegert reports.

Brussel's Grand Place is lit up in rainbow colors
Brussel's main town square, Grand-Place, was lit up in rainbow colors on Wednesday nightImage: Bernd Riegert/DW

Tensions between Hungary and the European Commission over the country's controversial anti-LGBTQ law intensified ahead of Thursday's EU summit. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said "the Hungarian bill is a shame." Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban immediately refuted the criticism.

Von der Leyen sent a letter to Orban, protesting against what she said was a bill that "clearly discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation."

She has announced legal steps will be taken. Speaking in Brussels, the EU chief said she believes in a European Union where everyone is "free to love whom they want."

Rainbow flags in Brussels

The Hungarian law, that bans the portrayal of homosexuality in media content available to minors, could overshadow the upcoming summit of EU leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also criticized the legislation. Orban, meanwhile, insists that children's sexual education should take place at home. "We protect this task of parents," he told German news agency DPA.

Fourteen of the bloc's 27 member states issued a joint statement on Tuesday criticizing Hungary's law. Many eastern European states, however, chose not to sign the letter.

The row garned extra attention after Munich, which hosted the European Championship match between Germany and Hungary on Wednesday, planned to illuminate its football stadium in rainbow colors in a show of LGBTQ solidarity.

Fans display the Pride and EU flags at the Euro 2020 match between Germany and Hungary
Fans display the Pride and EU flags at the Euro 2020 match between Germany and HungaryImage: Thomas Klein/DW

European football's governing body UEFA, however, banned the move, saying it would breach its commitment to political neutrality. The city of Brussels, meanwhile, lit up its Grand Place in rainbow colors on the evening of the match in solidarity with Munich (pictured at top).

The dispute could spark a heated debate over the rule of law not only in Hungary but also Poland and Slovenia, EU diplomats have warned. Lawsuits by the Commission and Council of Ministers against Hungary and Polandfor rule of law violations have been running for years. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has, for instance, ordered Poland to guarantee the independence of its judges. So far, without success.

Bulgaria blocks North Macedonian accession

Bulgaria may further complicate matters at the upcoming summit. The government in Sofia stubbornly refuses to withdraw its veto on EU accession talks commencing with North Macedonia. Even though it meets all formal criteria for talks to start, Bulgaria is the only EU member state to oppose North Macedonian membership. Bulgaria insists a range of cultural, historical and territorial claims still need to be resolved. 

For a year now, North Macedonia has found itself in accession limbo. And without progress on North Macedonia, Albania's accession will not move ahead, either. Both countries are part of an "enlargement package."

Michael Roth, the minister of state for Europe at the German Foreign Office, has urged Bulgaria to cease vetoing North Macedonian EU membership. Yet Bulgaria's European Affairs Minister Rumen Alexandrov has made clear his country will resume negotiations in July, when Slovenia assumes the rotating EU presidency. In other words: EU members should expect no Bulgarian concessions at Thursday's summit.

A bland summit?

The summit's official agenda contains just four key words: COVID-19, economic recovery, migration and external relations.

It appears that leaders will reach few substantial agreements, or disagree profoundly over various issues, as draft summit declarations circulating ahead of the gathering remain vague at best.

Indeed, German Chancellor Merkel did not even hold a customary briefing for Brussels correspondents ahead of her final regular summit.

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No deal in sight over Turkey

EU figures will discuss the bloc's relationship with Turkey, though diplomats preparing the summit have hinted no concrete decisions will be reached. Judging by a draft summit declaration, Turkey will be called upon to deescalate tensions with Cyprus and Greece over gas reserves in the Mediterranean.

The draft states that the EU remains open towards strengthening ties with Turkey in a suitable, proportional and reversible manner in fields of mutual interest. Yet European heads of state and government already expressed this very position in March. Above all, the bloc wants to renew the EU-Turkey migrant deal, which pays Turkey to keep Syrian refugees from heading for Europe. The 2016 deal has been provisionally extended.

Turkish President Erdogan hold speech
EU relations with Turkish President Erdogan remain frostyImage: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO via REUTERS

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, has been instrumentalizing the pact to pressure the EU. It has subsequently toned down its criticism of human rights abuses and the persecution of Turkish media outlets and dissidents.

Speaking on Monday after talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel said "without Turkish cooperation, we will get nowhere." Greece, however, wants the EU to exert more pressure on Turkey, and prevent the delivery of submarines from Germany to the Turkish navy.

New Russia strategy

The bloc's strained relations with Russia are expected to be on the menu at Thursday evening's dinner.

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, will suggest a strategy for engaging in dialogue with Moscow over Ukraine, Belarus and opposition figures like Alexei Navalny.

This article was translated from German

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union