Rutte’s hostility with Orban over Hungary’s new anti-LGBTQ law

  • Prime Minister Rutte hostile with Prime Minister Orban after debates in the EU Council over Hungary’s new anti-LGBT law
  • Orban claims to be protecting Hungary’s culture, but Rutte claims he is violating EU law and suggests Orban leave the EU
  • Rutte and his allies in the European Commission take legal action against Orban’s actions
Prime minister Orban and Prime Minister Rutte at the Hague
Source: Reuters

Why is Rutte hostile towards Orban?

Answer: PM Rutte claims that PM Orban’s new anti-LGBTQ measures contradict “EU values” and floats Hungary leaving the EU.

For the past decade, Viktor Orban has served as a thorn in the side of the liberal European Union (EU) establishment. He regularly flouts EU democratic norms regarding civil society groups and domestic institutions, receiving criticism from his fellow EU Council members. Former Commissioner Jean-Claude Junker even (perhaps drunkenly) called him “the dictator” to his face. 

Orban’s latest moves to curb LGBTQ rights through a new law in Hungary, however, struck a particular nerve with EU leaders, leading to a massive backlash during the EU Council meeting in late June 2021. This new law targets material “promoting” LGBTQ topics to minors by banning the dissemination of any LGBTQ content to those under 18. Tied to a popular anti-paedophilia bill, the government used a popular homophobic narrative conflating homosexuality and paedophelia to target this controversial social issue. 

Criticism came from all sides over this bill at the EU Council meeting. Council members of 14 states signed onto a letter to Orban decrying the new law as against EU values. Luxembourgian Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, a gay man, levied harsh criticism against Orban for his anti-LGBTQ actions. However, the most forceful condemnation came from Mark Rutte, the liberal Dutch Prime Minister. PM Rutte went further than any standing EU leader has gone in directly asking PM Orban to “leave the union” if he doesn’t agree with fundamental EU values.

The hostility between Mark Rutte and Viktor Orban has simmered in the past few years. During negotiations last year over COVID-19 relief funds, Rutte led the way in setting up the rule of law mechanism much criticized by Orban and his illiberal allies. Prime Minister Rutte’s perceived vendetta against Orban provides the Hungarian Prime Minister with good material for his populist base.

While most EU leaders have fallen behind PM Rutte, Orban still has allies within the EU. Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban have agreed to support each other in scenarios regarding the rule of law. Additionally, the Slovenian Prime Minister has shown support for Orban’s right to envision a different EU.

What does Orban want?

Answer: Prime Minister Orban wants an EU made of fully sovereign and independent states, seeing himself as the protector of Hungarians against an overreaching Brussels.

Viktor Orban regularly makes headlines for his illiberal actions within Hungary. He has gained control over universities, the media, the courts, and much of civil society. However, unlike many conservative leaders who try to maintain their liberal facade, Orban takes a more straightforward approach. He proudly takes the label of an illiberal politician and has set forward his vision of “illiberal democracy,” where the people’s will is achieved without anti-democratic restrictions.

In this light, Orban sees liberalism as a vehicle for yet another foreign power to impose its will on Hungary. In his mind, Western Europe wants to impose its values just like the Soviet occupation in 1956. This strikes a note with the foreign-skeptical culture of Hungary. Ever since the Treaty of Trianon, the treaty organized by the Western allies which ended World War 1 in the Balkans and saw Hungary lose 75% of its land, Hungarians have distrusted foreign institutions. Orban regularly lambasts the 100 year old treaty, inflaming waves of nationalist sentiment which he rides to electoral victories. 

Orban carries this sentiment directly into EU institutions, aiming to achieve his view of how the European Union should operate. After the criticism during the EU Council meetings, Orban took out page-sized ads in newspapers across the EU outlining his vision for the “Future of the European Union.” He wants to abolish the European Parliament, a frequent critic of his, and wants the driving force of the EU to be common economic success.

Orban wants the EU to move away from a centralized political and economic union and towards a looser economic alliance, maintaining economic cooperation between EU states while removing the political integration. This way, he could reap the economic benefits of the single market without the liberal political requirements. 

PM Orban especially opposes the liberal social rights promoted by the EU. To him, these rights serve as a violation of Hungary’s cultural sovereignty, going against Hungary’s traditional values. For years, migrants served as Orban’s target as he attempted to stop refugees from “invading” Hungary. After building a razor-wire fence and essentially halting refugee inflows to Hungary, Orban needed a new threat to Hungarian culture to rile up voters.

This drove Orban to take action against LGBTQ civil society groups and individuals to supposedly protect the Hungarian people, their culture, and their children. Orban admits that in his fight against communism in the 1980s, he fought for the rights of LGBTQ people persecuted by the authoritarian government. In this light, Orban’s fight against queer people likely serves as a vote-gathering method rather than a deep ideological drive.

In addition to his actions against the LGBTQ community, PM Orban also wants to expand the European Union eastward to both bring in less democratically-minded leaders and to expand the economic benefits of the single market. He has explicitly called for the membership of Serbia and Ukraine and stated that “enlargement should be the most important project of the [EU].” He sees these countries’ accessions as a safeguard against further political integration, as these countries will likely not accept the rule of law and anti-corruption measures touted by Western European democracies. 

What does Rutte want?

Answer: Prime Minister Rutte wants to increase his influence in the EU and reshape his image into a pro-EU figure.

Mark Rutte has never been a trustworthy friend to pro-EU figures. As a member of the Frugal Four, a group of EU countries opposed to increased EU spending and lending, Rutte commonly brings those looking for grand EU expansion projects back to reality. While an unabashed liberal and strong supporter of the European project, he leads one of the wealthiest countries in the EU, and thus, the biggest net contributor per capita to the EU budget. To him and his voters, EU spending projects funnel money away from clean, fiscally responsible Northern European countries to corrupt, irresponsible Eastern European countries, putting the whole bloc at financial risk. 

Rutte wants the EU to more mimic the Netherlands, where irresponsibility and corruption is not tolerated and social rights are especially protected. The Netherlands ranks as one of the most tolerant countries in the EU, especially for LGBTQ issues, and Rutte wants the EU to act more this way. He sees the EU as not only an economic community, but one of a “community of values,” values which Hungary has violated in his view.

Letting go of LGBTQ rights would render the EU “nothing more than a trading block and a currency,” argues Rutte. Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union sets forwards the values under which EU member-states agree to operate, and to Rutte, these actions violating Article 2 violate the core of the EU itself.

The Dutch public agrees. They recently shifted from PM Rutte’s center-right party to grant a huge win for the social liberal party, D66, putting more pressure on Rutte to take action on social issues. Getting into this fight with PM Orban shows voters PM Rutte’s view of the EU as a political as well as economic institution, while also showing his personal priority of upholding LGBTQ rights throughout the EU. Rutte sees the rise of D66 as a threat to his political power, and is likely trying to win back voters who abandoned him in the last election through this increasing hostility with Orban.

What is Rutte doing?

Answer: Besides strong words, Rutte can’t do much alone to counter Orban. However, the EU, supported by Rutte, is taking legal action against Hungary.

Prime Minister Rutte has few options up his sleeve to fight Orban. Rutte can use his large influence in the EU council to steer negotiations about Orban’s misdeeds and veto bills which would go straight to the hands of Orban’s corrupt administration. That said, Rutte has already used this strategy by holding up the COVID-19 relief bill to pressure for a rule of law mechanism.

According to multiple reports, Hungary’s cut of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) regularly gets siphoned to Hungarian oligarchs, including Orban’s own family. To Rutte, a politician known for his clean record, sending money to such a corrupt establishment seems unjustifiable. Thus, in 2020, he held up EU funds to solidify a more executable rule of law mechanism in the EU recovery package. Thus, Rutte’s cards are mostly on the table already.

However, Rutte’s strongest tools against Orban may play out in a separate EU institution: the European Commission (EC). The rule of law mechanism included in the COVID-19 relief fund, pushed for by the Frugal Four and led by Rutte himself, empowers the EC to withhold funds with a qualified majority in the European Council. While not yet operational, the Commission plans on executing this mechanism in the fall, taking on Orban for his illiberal violations of EU law. In the meantime, the EC is taking more conventional legal action against the move, which will likely result in a stalemate.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: EU institutions make it difficult to punish member states, but new mechanisms set up by Rutte and allies could change this.

Prime Minister Orban and his allies are currently steamrolling rule-of-law-minded allies of Prime Minister Rutte. The controversial anti-LGBTQ bill which sparked this hostility has passed easily, and Orban shows no signs of slowing down his illiberal actions. Furthermore, the European Commission will have to wait until this fall to use the new rule of law mechanism, giving Orban leeway in his actions until then. 

As such, the outcome of this conflict will carry serious consequences for LGBTQ communities across Europe. The rise of right-wing conservative, Christian sentiments has spelled trouble for LGBTQ people in Eastern and Southern Europe where progress lags behind the more tolerant capitals of Northern Europe. Poland famously designated swathes of the country “LGBT-free” the past couple years, a blow to LGBTQ rights.

If Orban succeeds in implementing this law without consequence from his European counterparts, other EU governments could move to target LGBTQ communities, silencing them in their fight for recognition. If Rutte and his allies can bring successful legal action against Orban, however, other hesitant EU countries could fall in line behind LGBTQ rights, strengthening the EU as an institution and community.