Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg led the charge against Hungary's anti-LGBT law on Tuesday as European affairs ministers from the 27 EU countries met to discuss the rule of law.
In total, 16 member states out of 27 voiced their disapproval of the Hungarian law.
Last week, the Hungarian parliament passed a new law tabled by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that bans the portrayal of homosexuality and sex reassignment in school education material and TV programmes addressed to people under 18 years of age.
The bill, approved during Pride month, was met with immediate condemnation from high-ranking officials of several EU countries and groups in the European Parliament.
The outrage over the Hungarian law was discussed by the EU Council on Tuesday afternoon, with the Benelux ministers gathering linked-minded countries in a critical statement against the legislation.
Following behind-the-scenes consultations, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden and Latvia endorsed the Benelux text. Italy waited until the end of the meeting to add its name to the list, while Austria and Greece did so the following day.
"[The law] represents a flagrant form of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and hence deserves to be condemned. Inclusion, human dignity and equality are core values of our European Union, and we cannot compromise on these principles," the countries said.
"Stigmatizing LGBTIQ persons constitute a clear breach of their fundamental right to dignity, as provided for in the EU Charter and international law."
Passed in 2000, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is today a primary source of EU law at the same level as the EU treaties. The Charter's article 21 prohibits any kind of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
The signatories call on the European Commission to "use all tools at its disposal to ensure full respect of EU law, including by referring the matter to the [European Court of Justice]".
"We stand to protect the rights of all EU citizens," they conclude.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already expressed her concern about the Hungarian law and said her executive was in the process of assessing the legality of the text.
"I believe in a Europe which embraces diversity, not one which hides it from our children," she wrote. Von der Leyen is a long-standing advocate of LGBT+ rights. Last year, her Commission passed the first-ever EU strategy on LGBTIQ equality.
Reacting to Benelux-led statement, Péter Szijjártó, Hungary's Foreign Affairs Minister, dismissed all negative opinions and asked critics to read the law in full.
"This law is not against any community in Hungary," Szijjártó said before the ministers' meeting.
"This law is against all the paedophiles so this law makes it very clear that the children must be protected and that's why this law makes it very clear that paedophile crimes must be punished in a very, very serious way.
"On the other hand, the law protects the children in a way that it makes it an exclusive right of the parents to educate their kids regarding sexual orientation until the age of 18. So this law doesn't say anything about sexual orientation of adults."
The conflation between the LGBT community and paedophiles has been harshly denounced by human rights experts and civil society for perpetuating damaging stereotypes.
"Associating paedophilia with LGBT people, banning comprehensive sexuality education and stifling free speech is despicable and unworthy of an EU member state," Lydia Gall, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch wrote on Twitter.
Rule of law assessment
The Benelux countries' call for action comes as ministers convened in Luxembourg for the last General Affairs Council under the auspices of Portugal, which currently chairs the Council's six-month rotating presidency.
Portugal's Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, confirmed that her country had to abstain from signing the joint statement because of its duty of neutrality. "It's important that the colours of the rainbow unites us in our diversity," Zacarias added.
Among the topics on Tuesday's agenda, ministers held hearings concerning the Article 7 procedure. This mechanism, enshrined in the EU treaties, can be used to suspend certain rights, such as voting rights, of a particular member state suspected of breaching the EU's fundamental values.
As of today, the last-resort procedure is active against Hungary and Poland over concerns related to the rule of law. Both countries are accused of democratic backsliding as a result of a series of legal reforms that their right-wing governments have launched in the past years.
NGO Freedom House no longer considers Hungary as a democracy and instead describes the country as a "hybrid regime" due to a "precipitous" decline in democratic quality. Prime Minister Orbán has repeatedly promoted an alternative ideology to the Western creed known as "illiberal democracy".
Seen as a nuclear option, Article 7 remains virtually stalled because, in order to suspend rights, a unanimous vote inside the European Council (excluding the accused country) is required. Hungary and Poland have formed a coalition to prevent each other's procedure from advancing any further.
The last hearings on the issue took place in 2018 for Poland and in 2019 for Hungary. Secretary Zacarias said the mechanism has now been "reactivated" and member states had the opportunity to pose questions and demand explanations to the ministers of both countries.
Tuesday's Council meeting was also attended by Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commission's vice-president responsible for values and transparency.
"The situation is not going in the right direction, in the Commission's view," Vice-President Jourová said ahead of the gathering.
"We consider the rule of law as a fundament of European democracy, so too much is at stake. We need to continue this [Article 7] procedure because we still see the systematic issues both in Hungary and Poland."
Jourová said the European Commission could launch an infringement procedure against Hungary over the new anti-LGBT law if it deems the text breaches EU law.
The controversy around the Hungarian legislation has spilled over into the 2020 UEFA European Championship. As Germany prepares to play against Hungary on Wednesday evening, the city council of Munich filled an application before UEFA to have its stadium filled with the rainbow colours from the LGBT+ flag.
UEFA said it understands the intentions behind the proposal but it "must decline this request" because of its political context. Michael Roth, Germany's European affairs ministers, and Bavarian governor Markus Söder regretted UEFA's decision.
In an act of defiance, clubs in Berlin, Wolfsburg, Augsburg, Frankfurt and Cologne said they would light up their venues during the final group game.
Watch the Euronews Tonight report in the video player above.