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Macron, Merkel and 15 other EU leaders defend LGBT rights amid row over new Hungarian law

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By Euronews
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President Macron and Chancellor Merkel were among the letter's signatories.
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel were among the letter's signatories.   -   Copyright  Axel Schmidt/AP
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A group of 17 EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have signed a joint letter in defense of the LGBT+ community amid a raging controversy over Hungary's new anti-LGBT 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 Hungarian government argues the law primarily targets paedophilia, but the conflation between the LGBT community and paedophiles has been harshly denounced by human rights experts and civil society for perpetuating damaging stereotypes.

"On the occasion of the celebration of the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Pride Day the upcoming 28th June, and in the light of threats against fundamental rights and in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, we express our attachment to our common fundamental values, enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union," the letter reads.

"It will be a day to remember that we are diverse and tolerant societies, committed to the unhindered development of the personality of each one of our citizens, including their sexual orientation and gender identity. It will also be a moment to celebrate that, over the last few years, we have walked a long way in favour of these principles, which we believe to be the bedrock of the European Union."

The text, published hours before a two-day European summit in Brussels, doesn't explicitly mention the Hungarian legislation, although the timing and context of the statement makes its intention obvious for all readers.

"We must continue fighting against discrimination towards the LGBTI community, reaffirming our defence of their fundamental rights. Respect and tolerance are at the core of the European project. We are committed to carry on with this effort, making sure that future European generations grow up in an atmosphere of equality and respect," leaders conclude.

The letter was reportedly drafted and promoted by the prime ministers of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, and Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel.

Bettel is currently the only openly LGBT member of the European Council.

"We cannot be judges and complain about human rights in the world going in the wrong direction, if sitting in our table we do exactly the same," Bettel said. "Intolerant to intolerance, that's the main word today."

The list of signatories reflects a marked West-East divide: Emmanuel Macron (France), Angela Merkel (Germany), Alexander De Croo (Belgium), Mark Rutte (Netherlands), Micheál Martin (Ireland), Mette Frederiksen (Denmark), Sanna Marin (Finland), Stefan Löfven (Sweden), Mario Draghi (Italy), Robert Abela (Malta), Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Greece) and Nikos Anastasiades (Cyprus).

The only representatives from Eastern Europe are Kaja Kallas, from Estonia, and Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, from Latvia.

Notably missing in the initial document was Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Federal Chancellor. On Monday, Austria chose to join a critical statement that explicitly denounced Hungary's new anti-LGBT law. That statement was also signed off by Lithuania, which also opted out from the new letter. However, Kurz added his signature to Thursday's letter after it was released.

Malta and Cyprus, which were absent in the previous joint call, co-signed the new document, whose tone is significantly softer than Monday's censure.

Portugal did not join either text because it currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the EU and maintains a position of honest broker. However, the Southern country has made no secret of its stance.

"It's important that the colours of the rainbow unites us in our diversity," Portugal's Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, said on Monday.

'Groundless offensive'

Thursday's letter is addressed to the presidents of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Council, Charles Michel, as well as to United Nations General-Secretary António Guterres, who was invited to the summit in Brussels.

The deliberate publication, hours before leaders are set to convene, has served to influence the summit's agenda, which originally did not include any LGBT+ topic. President Michel confirmed mandataries will have a debate on the issue during dinner.

"No discrimination is acceptable in any circumstance, and any discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people is totally unacceptable in our modern societies," Guterres told reporters.

President von der Leyen, who's been a long-standing advocate of gay rights, has already expressed her displeasure towards the Hungarian legislation and vowed to take legal action to stop it from entering into force.

Her executive has sent a letter to Budapest demanding explanations concerning several aspects of the law that relate, on the one hand, to fundamental rights, and, on the other hand, to the free movement of goods and services of the audiovisual media sector. The process could evolve into a fully-fledged infringement procedure if Budapest's response is not deemed satisfactory.

"This Hungarian bill is a shame," von der Leyen said on Wednesday, standing next to the Belgium's Alexander De Croo, another vocal advocate of the LGBT+ community.

"I will use all the powers of the Commission to ensure that the rights of all EU citizens are guaranteed, whoever you are and wherever you live."

Reacting swiftly to the coordinated move, Viktor Orbán's international spokesperson, Zoltan Kovacs, attacked the 16 EU leaders for what he calls a "groundless offensive against Hungary".

"The Hungarian law protects children’s rights and guarantees those of the parents, it does not apply to adults," Kovacs wrote in a statement.

"The declaration, signed by certain EU Member States, cites the amendment falsely, leaving out substantive parts of the text. The regulation put forward in the law protects children from all forms of sexuality, therefore it cannot be considered discriminative.

"Hungary’s child protection law prohibits the autotelic display, in the case of children, of not only homosexuality, but also sexuality as a whole. Hence, the regulation is neither homophobic, nor heterophobic."

Speaking to reporters before heading into the EU summit, Orbán said he was not going to withdraw the law: "It's published, it's done."

But Dutch PM Mark Rutte struck an even more defiant note and said that if Hungary goes ahead with the law "then as far as I am concerned, then there is nothing left for them in the EU".

"This is such a fundamental point, that if we let that go, we are nothing more than a trading block and a currency."