‘Culture Wars’ and the EU: LGBT rights as a political weapon

23 Jul – Written by Niccolò Fantini

“Italy is a secular state, not a confessional state, so Parliament is certainly free to debate and legislate”. Mario Draghi appeared quite baffled when expressing this thought during an intervention at the Italian Senate on 23 June. His crystal-clear words, uttered in the usual balanced manner that characterises the technocratic new PM, came after an unprecedented move by the Vatican. The micro-state recently filed an official note of criticism against the Italian government, apparently based on a Concordat signed during Mussolini’s times, criticising a new bill against LGBT discrimination that is currently still in Parliament.

That a prime minister of a consolidated liberal democracy should remind the representatives of the people of his country’s political fundamentals sounds somewhat dystopian. However, its significance, and the implication it carries, are far from abstract. A form of identity politics, or rather ‘culture war’, that has often played itself out quietly in the background, has now stepped to the centre-stage of EU politics. LGBT rights are right at the heart of it and, while Europeans (especially their leaders) were used to looking upon authoritarian countries like Russia or Uganda and quickly condemning human rights abuses in this field, they are now faced with this issue much closer to home. If Draghi’s surprise at his own statement can be in any way telling, it appears that there is a much deeper thread running through the current debate: to what extent has the discussion on LGBT rights in the EU reached constitutional and potentially structurally relevant levels?

Recent events have clearly shown that it is not to be underestimated. To the contrary, the topic is being weaponised as a political strategy by some leaders, notably Victor Orban from Hungary. The UEFA European football championship has been the symbolic arena in which the politicisation of LGBT rights has crossed national borders and entered the broader European public sphere. Lighting up of the Munich stadium with rainbow colours has triggered a cascade of events, j’accuse and step-backs that have inflamed public opinion across the continent. Much of the anger has been directed at UEFA, which has been seen buckling under pressure from the Hungarian government after the association stopped the lighting-up of the stadium with the explanation that such a decoration would not fit the ‘political context’. It moreover issued a statement mentioning that “UEFA, through its statutes, is a politically and religiously neutral organisation”. The irony is evident. Such an organisation would not have allowed the Hungarian government to push its political agenda into the domain of another sovereign state. 

The issue is, however, much more subtle than that. The request by the Munich council to illuminate the Allianz Stadium with rainbow colours was meant to be a response to the new law passed by Orban’s government that bans LGBT content in schools and children’s media. The law has received plenty of criticism, and justly so, both inside and outside Hungary. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Hungarian government from openly rebuking opposition by labelling it as politically motivated. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó was also reported saying that it would be “extremely harmful and dangerous to mix sport and politics,” and that “”thank god common sense remains among the leaders of European football.” The debate on LGBT rights in Hungary has been a long-standing EU-policy issue, with the country most recently threatened with sanctions by the Commission under Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU (TEU). Concrete results are, however, regularly frustrated by institutional stalemate in the Council.

To be sure, deficiencies in the protection of LGBT rights is an ongoing issue across the continent. A recent study by the new European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that more survey respondents (40%) perceived a deterioration of the situation rather than an improvement (36%). Fear of being harassed and physically or sexually assaulted in public remains too high across the EU, with even usually-progressive Germany witnessing scorings within EU-wide averages. Of course, there is still a major gap between east and west. Along with Hungary, Poland has recently come under the spotlight for the anti-LGBT attitude and policies advanced by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. So-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ have popped-up across the country, creating a sense of fear and suffering within the polish LGBT community. Jacek Dehnel, a Polish writer, says that while conditions in Poland and elsewhere have slightly improved for gay people, his country nevertheless stands at a crossroads: “Either there will be a liberalisation” or “Catholic fundamentalism akin to Islamist countries”.

Indeed, that is where the bigger picture comes in. The ability of far-right, populist leaders like Orban to turn LGBT rights into political weapons is partially enabled by the unwillingness of both Commission and Member States to give EU values their proper legal weight. Article 2 TEU clearly lists such values as the protection of minorities and non-discrimination as ‘common to the Member States’ and fundamental for the Union. With the triggering of corrective or punitive measures through the Article 7 TEU procedure subject to near political unanimity of Member States, including Hungary, there is an incentive for populist leaders to buy time and actually abuse the political and mediatic platform that emerges for their own purpose. In this sense, the Article 7 mechanism could become counterproductive by politicising the issue, while a more legal approach, supported by a more powerful Commission that is truly the guardian of the treaties, could lead to quicker and more effective improvements. 

Of course, one should not forget that anti-LGBT policies are a proven tool traditionally employed by authoritarian leaders to strengthen their grip on power. The topic of LGBT rights has been increasingly politicised, becoming a powerful weapon in the hands of both incumbents and aspiring populist leaders. By doing this, they often link LGBT rights to loss of ‘national vigour’ or the malicious interference of ‘foreign powers’, usually from the West. This way, legitimate criticism from abroad, as in the case of the EU, is received instead as an attack on national pride. In Hungary, the same form of ‘demonisation’ is taking place, whose victims are innocent members of the LGBT community who steadily see their fundamental rights curtailed. This time, his new law evokes the fear of paedophilia only to blend it together with that of homosexuality and, even though public opinion in Hungary is divided on LGBT rights, this political polarisation is benefitting Orban’s illiberal quest and is starting to make itself felt outside of Hungary as well. 

Nevertheless, this development could at least force the EU to rethink its position and approach. Once the politicisation of human rights is no longer originating in China or Russia, but from within the Union, and if this weaponisation is managing to affect other sectors of policy and negotiations, then leaders are faced with an urgent question on how to deal with this problem. While a political solution coming from the Member States in the form of a united front that can trigger Article 7 and exert the right pressure could be the most desirable option, it comes with serious risks and limits. If Member States don’t act quickly and coherently enough, they may provide further space for populists like Orban to advertise their agendas and apply it in blatant contrast with the EU’s fundamental principles. On the other hand, if the violations are linked back to the legal foundations of EU treaties and depoliticised by EU Members and institutions first, then countries like Hungary will be faced with a hard but clear decision: in or out. In other words, to continue to participate in this primarily legal enterprise, politicisation of the legal framework and constraints will not be tolerated.

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Recommended citation:

Fantini, N. (2021) ‘Culture Wars and the EU: LGBT rights as a political weapon, IDRN, 23 July. Available at: https://idrn.eu/migration-identity-and-individuals/culture-wars-and-the-eu-lgbt-rights-as-a-political-weapon [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].