July 18, 2022 - 7:00am

The culture war between Hungary and the EU has ratcheted up, with the European Commission taking Budapest to the bloc’s highest court over a law prohibiting the dissemination of LGBT-positive material in schools and public life. 

Bitter arguments have raged over Hungary’s “Child Protection” law ever since it was introduced by Viktor Orbán’s government last summer. Labelled a “disgrace” by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, it bans content which “promotes gender reassignment, homosexuality, or portrays sexuality for its own sake” in education or in media accessible to children. 

But the Hungarian government refuses to accept that Brussels has any right to dictate its social policy. Orbán has also insisted that EU abhorrence of Hungarian Christian conservatism is the real reason for the bloc’s ongoing ‘rule of law’ crusade against Budapest, which has seen EU pandemic recovery funds withheld. 

The intractable debate over the Child Protection law has become an archetypal culture war battleground. Hungary stands for traditional conceptions of gender and heterosexuality within strong nuclear families, seen as the fundamental building blocks of a healthy nation state — a perception closely linked to Hungary’s serious problem with population decline. The EU, meanwhile, stands for inclusivity, diversity and the protection of minorities as the central tenets of a pan-European value structure, according to which member states’ separate social policies must harmonise within a greater whole. 

For progressives, the Commission’s decision to sue Hungary over the Child Protection law is an ‘historic’ defence of universal human rights being abused in the country. In its referral to the ECJ, the Commission claims the Hungarian law violates “the fundamental rights of individuals (in particular LGBTIQ people) as well as – with regard to those fundamental rights – EU values.”  

Yet while the EU sees the Child Protection law as a restriction of human rights, Budapest frames it differently – as a reasonable limitation on freedom of speech. 

When discussing the controversy over the law, Hungarian politicians note that LGBT rights are in fact more advanced in Hungary than in many other EU states. In its “Rainbow Europe Map” for 2022, ILGA Europe gave Hungary a score of 30%. Not great, but still far better than other EU members such as Romania and Bulgaria, on 18% each, and better than some countries which tend to be seen as more progressive, such as the Czech Republic. 

The fundamental difference is that Hungary does not see “promotion” of LGBT causes — what the Hungarian government calls “LGBT ideology” — as a right. On the contrary, Orbán’s government suggests that exposure to LGBT-positive content could violate children’s own right to the benefits of life within the traditional family model. In this context, the production and dissemination of LGBT-positive content is deemed a freedom which violates the “harm principle” of classical liberalism, in which individuals can act however they wish so long as their actions don’t hurt others. 

Is Hungary’s Child Protection law a restriction of fundamental human rights, or a limitation on freedoms which may cause harm? It’s within this ethical grey area that a cultural rift between Hungary and the EU has opened up — and as the matter goes to the courts, the ideological divide is only getting wider.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz