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Opinion Hungary’s Orban may finally pay a price for attacking LGBTQ people — if the E.U. holds firm

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, delivers a speech in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on June 25. (Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)

FOR OVER a decade, Hungary’s right-wing ruling party has stoked its political base by demonizing immigrants, Muslims, Jews and the LGBTQ community, even while enjoying the benefits of the country’s membership in the European Union. Brussels has failed to take firm action against the government of Viktor Orban even when it dismantled democratic checks and balances, such as independent courts and media. Now, finally, European leaders may have had enough of the Hungarian demagogue. At a meeting last week, they assailed him for his latest attack on gays, a new law prohibiting the depiction or promotion of homosexuality or sexual reassignment to those under the age of 18.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, vowed to use “all the powers of the commission” to protect people from the law, while the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, suggested that Hungary leave the union if it did not share its values. “I am being attacked from all sides,” whined Mr. Orban, who might well have been surprised by the onslaught. After all, his government previously rewrote the constitution to define marriage as heterosexual and passed a law making it impossible for gay couples to adopt children, with little E.U. response. In nearby Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has made attacks on LGBTQ people a foundation of its political campaigns without incurring consequences from Brussels.

If there is now to be a hardening of E.U. reactions to such intolerance, it’s a good moment for it. In adopting a plan to channel hundreds of billions of economic recovery funds to its members, the union last year also gave itself more leverage against governments that transgress democratic standards. Hungary, with a population of fewer than 10 million, is due to receive $8.3 billion of that largesse — subject to approval by the commission. It is already one of the largest net recipients of E.U. aid. So let’s hope Micheál Martin, Ireland’s leader, was not bluffing when he said Mr. Orban “was left in no doubt” at the summit “that a line had been crossed, and without question it would have implications in terms of future decisions around funding.”

As it happens, Mr. Orban needs E.U. funds more than ever. Like many other populist leaders, he botched the response to the covid-19 epidemic, with the result that Hungary has one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. Opposition parties from the far right to the socialist left have forged a coalition against him, making the outcome of national elections next year an open question, despite the twisted political system. Mr. Orban’s worsening political prospects probably had something to do with the new anti-LGBTQ legislation: Hungarian analysts say he was hoping it would drive a wedge into the opposition alliance. If the actual outcome is to hamper his ability to lavish E.U. aid on his constituents while simultaneously trashing E.U. values, it will be a salutary lesson.

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