Series on Hungary (1): Protecting national identity at all costs

20-08-2021

Central Europe

Lieke Pippel, RD

Protest against official Hungarian education and family policy. Photo AF, Ferenc Isza

Exactly one month ago, the Hungarian government presented a law banning the promotion of sexuality to children under the age of 18. Due to the controversy surrounding it, the dust hasn’t been settled yet.

The Hungarian Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, could in terms of political position not differ more from the vice president of the Hungarian socialist party, Zita Gurmai. Varga daily defends the policies of the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Gurmai, however, attacks the government every day.

What the two Hungarian politicians do have in common is a full schedule. “I’m like a robot,” Gurmai says at the headquarters of her party, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). The office, located in a school, has been an oasis of peace for a few weeks because of the long summer holidays in the country. That week, she has only a one-time slot in her diary to meet: her lunch break on Wednesday.

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MP Zita Gurmai. Photo RD, Lieke Pippel

She runs, not literally because she just had surgery on her knee, from appointment to appointment. Currently, her entire life is dominated by the parliamentary elections, which will be held next year.

Emergency

The same goes for Varga’s agenda. Preparations for a potential interview take weeks. In the end, the interview is cancelled at the very last minute due to “an emergency” that day. A new appointment will only be possible one or two months later. Therefore, Varga gives a written response to the questions a few days later.

Although Varga does not explain the “emergency situation” any further, it is clear that she is being approached, questioned and attacked from all sides that week. The European Commission presented an annual report on the rule of law in member states on Tuesday. Brussels is concerned, among other things, about “checks and balances”, favouritism and media independence. As Minister of Justice, it is Varga’s job to respond to these kinds of assessments. She doesn’t shy away from giving her opinion. “The report is part of a campaign in which rule of law means not a principle but a tool of extortion.”

Homophobic

Another issue that the minister has to defend repeatedly is the new controversial Hungarian law that prohibits promoting sexuality, gender reassignment and homosexuality to children under 18. That law is seen by many as an “anti-gay law.” Varga, however, stands firm in her belief that the law is not discriminatory or homophobic. She argues that children should be protected from all forms of sexuality, “be it homosexual or heterosexual,” because it is “not appropriate for their particular age group.” How can a law be discriminatory when it addresses all forms of sexuality, not just homosexuality, she wonders.

When asked why it is necessary to protect children against all forms of sexuality, the minister uses her three young children as an example. “I teach my children not to interact with strangers. Not because all strangers are bad, but because children may not recognise evil intentions and may not yet think critically enough. As a result, they can be easily manipulated.” In practice, children will still meet the topic of sexuality after the new law has come into effect. The new law doesn’t prohibit discussing sexuality in schools, as long as it is done by qualified school personnel, Varga says.

Parental approval

“There have already been situations where LGBT activists have visited schools to force an ideology on children without parental approval.” That’s what the mother of three wants to prevent from happening.

The minister will have to explain to Brussels why this ‘ideology’ is dangerous for children. The European Commission demands an answer to this question from the Hungarian government. They did not give it yet. The European Commission, therefore, started an infringement procedure against Hungary. That procedure can ultimately lead to financial sanctions. Varga says it’s not “a question of how one defines danger. The question is whether we want to expose minors to all forms of sexual propaganda, regardless of whether the parents are aware of it or approve of it. Our answer is no.”

Abuse of power

Varga does not hide her opinion about the criticism from Brussels. She calls it “abuse of power” and “political blackmail.” She points out that children’s education is a national competence. It is an exclusive right of parents to educate their children – laid down in Article 14, paragraph 3, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. “Brussels must understand that it cannot simply circumvent the treaties to limit the sovereignty of member states.”

Despite the many accusations back and forth between Budapest and Brussels, the Hungarian minister remains optimistic about her country’s EU membership and does not want to discuss a possible breaking point. “I am an optimist, and as a lawyer, I know that one day the truth will prevail.” Still, there is “a long way to go, but we will protect the interests of the Hungarians at all costs.”

Neglect, hurt and prosecution

MP Gurmai is critical of the current government’s protection of Hungarian interests. In a conference room with enough space for social distancing, she says that the government does not stand up for all Hungarians. “The LGBT community is one of the groups that is stigmatised and hurt by the ruling party Fidesz. This party has the intention to hurt all Hungarians.” The socialist wants to back the people that Fidesz “neglects, hurts and persecutes.”

Gurmai neither believes in the government’s support for Christian values. As a Christian herself, she knows all too well that religion is fundamental to fellow Hungarians. She is annoyed at how Orban has so much influence on the relation between church and state. “Viktor Orban is not God but a mere earthly despot. Yet the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church agrees with Orban rather than the Pope himself.” She finds that incomprehensible. If her party were to come to power after the 2022 parliamentary elections, she wants to ensure that church and state are truly separated. “Never give to Caesar what is God’s.”

Orban’s reign will end

The vice president is confident that Orban’s reign will come to an end next year. “The Hungarian opposition is stronger than ever,” she says while eating white and red macarons. The multiple opposition parties formed a united group before the elections last year with one common goal: to defeat Orban.

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Budapest from the sky. Photo RD, Lieke Pippel

If successful, the new government will also adopt a different tone towards Brussels. Looking at the conflicts between Budapest and Brussels, Gurmai calls the current ruling party the culprit. “Hungary is a country that belongs to the Western civilisation. In that civilisation, we believe in equality, don’t persecute LGBT people, confuse ourselves with God, restrict freedom, respect the rule of law, and hate stealing. What would happen to our civilisation, to our idea of justice and fairness, if we didn’t tell the perpetrators to stop?”

In April next year, it will be up to Hungarian voters to decide at the ballot box what the message is for the ruling party Fidesz: support or disapproval. First, however, the government will hold a referendum on the new law. Minister Varga hopes that “the results of the referendum will send a clear message to Brussels: Hands off our children.”

Hungary series

This is the first of three features about the new controversial law in Hungary.

This article was published previously in the Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad on July 23rd 2021.

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