It is quite something when the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal’ prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, reminds Brussels of its liberal principles. As part of the ongoing row over a Hungarian law which bans the ‘depiction or promotion’ of homosexuality and gender reassignment, Orbán has argued that: ‘If we want to keep the European Union together, liberals must respect the rights of non-liberals. Unity in diversity.’
‘Unity in diversity’ has been the official motto of the European Union for over 20 years. The idea that the continent can unite in a common political and economic framework without losing the diversity of its constituent nations underpins the very idea of a democratic union of states. But this principle is proving increasingly difficult for Brussels to abide by as the ideological fabric of the EU begins to tear in a cultural tug of war.
Whether you agree with Orbán on the issue of sex education or not, he is onto something when he points out the EU’s problem with ‘illiberal democracies’. Brussels’s biggest threat does not come from Brexit, or even from the severe economic imbalances within the Union, but from the increasingly unbridgeable conflict between the two principles it purports to uphold: democracy and liberalism.
What happens when EU countries choose to be ‘illiberal’? It seems we are about to find out. Last Friday, Hungary’s National Election Committee (NEC) approved Orbán’s plan to hold a referendum on his controversial homosexuality laws, which came into force last month. Hungarians will be asked early in 2022 whether they want to allow sexual orientation workshops to be held in schools even when parents have not given their consent. They will also be asked if the promotion of gender reassignment to under-18s should be made illegal.
This has taken Orbán’s ‘cultural war’ with the EU up a notch, and follows the European Commission launching a legal action against Hungary’s homosexuality law.