In an off-the-cuff monologue delivered during a press conference in Sarajevo, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó summed up his government’s growing fury over international efforts to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. Asked about the US State Department’s latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which includes extensive criticisms of Hungary, Szijjártó pulled no punches.
“I am appalled, and I am appalled again and again every year, that the US State Department has the courage to make such excoriating statements about the internal issues and situations of other countries,” Szijjártó said. He pointed out that the foreign ministries of most countries do not habitually issue value judgments about the governance of their allies, “firstly, because it is not our concern, and secondly, because it is none of our business.”
Perhaps Szijjártó was exaggerating his outrage as red meat for the Hungarian government’s nationalist voter base. Yet with the European Union also taking on an ever more active role in trying to police social values in Hungary, his reaction betrayed a deep and growing frustration that “mutual respect is not present in international politics today.”
The US and the EU take issue with many aspects of Budapest’s conservative leadership, but for both Washington and Brussels, Hungary’s stance against what it calls “LGBT ideology” has become the biggest battleground. A legal struggle is now intensifying over Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “Child Protection Act,” dubbed the “anti-gay law” by international media.
This law, introduced in 2021, is an effective gauntlet thrown down by Orbán to progressive western leaders. Cut from similar cloth to Ron DeSantis’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, it bans content that “promotes gender reassignment, homosexuality, or promotes sexuality for its own sake” and that is accessible to children. It also tightens up requirements for the delivery of sexual education in schools. The law is strict, but the Hungarian government frames it as a limitation on freedom of speech that’s necessary to prevent harm.
Just as the State Department issued its scathing human rights report, the European Parliament’s legal committee voted in favor of joining a lawsuit lodged by the European Commission against the Child Protection Act. A swath of EU countries — mostly the union’s more affluent northern and western states — also joined the Commission’s case, which argues that the Hungarian law violates the rights and dignity of LGBT people.
The pressure is on for more countries to join the lawsuit by the end of the month, although major players France and Germany have appeared ambivalent, perhaps recognizing that Orbán only stands to gain politically from attempts by the international community to interfere in Hungarian social policies.
Still, much of the EU establishment sees the Child Protection Act as openly homophobic. For European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, protection of children is being weaponized by the Orbán government as “an excuse to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.”
In assessing Hungary’s stance on homosexuality, though, it should be remembered that Hungary’s recognition of same-sex unions, as well as its laws against hate speech and discrimination, actually make it more progressive than several other EU countries whose draconian restrictions fly largely under the international radar.
But many of Orbán’s supporters agree with the government that there is a need to impose limits on the public dissemination of LGBT themes. Gender reassignment has become the major flashpoint; in a State of the Nation address earlier this year, Orbán declared that “gender propaganda is not just an entertaining caper, not just rainbow chatter, but the greatest threat stalking our children.”
As the international pressure ramps up, Orbán appears to be making the Child Protection Act his hill to die on. Claiming the EU wants to take away Hungarian parents’ right to raise their children in the way they see fit, Orbán said in a recent radio interview that “there is such a gap between our two positions that I do not see how it can be bridged. And as we are not going to give in, Brussels will eventually have to give in.”
This is morphing into a clash over fundamental values. At the deepest level, Hungary is inverting the modern progressive framework for mediating social disputes, explicitly and unashamedly putting the perceived interests of the social majority above those of minority groups.
Budapest’s LGBT stance is only one element of its isolation from the rest of the West. Often accused of being Vladimir Putin’s “Trojan Horse” in the EU, Hungary has made further headlines in recent days by declaring that, despite being a signatory of the Rome Statue that created the International Criminal Court, it would not arrest Vladimir Putin if he entered Hungarian territory, because the statute has not been integrated into the nation’s legal system.
But the Child Protection Act is fast becoming the central issue in Hungary’s alienation from the rest of the West, because it encapsulates the ideological divide that underpins wider ambivalence about the nation’s place in the modern world. As international powers grow increasingly uncompromising in enforcing their values abroad, Hungary is a litmus test for the ability of nationalist political movements to pursue a dissenting conservative agenda.