By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Hungary on Wednesday rejected a demand from the European Commission and many EU lawmakers to repeal new legislation banning schools from using materials deemed to promote homosexuality.
Last month, EU leaders lambasted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over the legislation in a tense discussion behind closed doors, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte telling Budapest to respect EU values of tolerance or leave the bloc.
“Homosexuality is equated with pornography. This legislation uses the protection of children as an excuse to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation,” Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive Commission told the European Parliament. “It is a disgrace.”
The Commission can open a new legal case against Hungary at the European Court of Justice or use a new mechanism designed to protect the rule of law in the 27-nation bloc by freezing funding for countries that undermine democratic standards.
Orban, who faces a national election next year, has said the new law aims to protect children and does not discriminate against sexual minorities.
His chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, reiterated that stance on Wednesday: “Brussels’ efforts to have us allow LGBTQ activists into schools and nursery schools are in vain, we are not willing to do that.”
The case is the latest flare-up between Hungary and the EU, which has already launched an investigation against Budapest for undermining democracy. Orban has steadily tightened restrictions on media, NGOs, academics and migrants despite the criticism from Brussels, international watchdogs and rights groups.
Hungary’s conservative ally, Poland, is expected to block any attempt to impose the maximum EU penalty of suspending Budapest’s voting rights in the 27-nation bloc.
‘OFFENSIVE AND SHAMEFUL’
EU lawmakers urged the Commission not to release to Hungary funds earmarked for supporting its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic if they are to contribute to Budapest’s anti-LGBT agenda or before it can ensure solid anti-fraud protection.
Discriminating against LGBTI+ people is illegal in the EU, said Iraxte Garcia Perez, a Spanish EU lawmaker and the head of the socialist faction in the European Parliament.
“That is why the new law in Hungary must be repealed. An offensive and shameful law that goes against human rights.”
Lawmakers also spoke against so-called “LGBT-free zones” that some local authorities established in Poland, which also faces EU legal action.
At the other end of the spectrum, Spain became the first large EU country last month to approve a draft bill to allow anyone aged over 14 to change gender legally without a medical diagnosis or hormone therapy.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called the split over values between the liberal West and more conservative eastern countries such as Hungary and Poland a “cultural battle” that damages EU unity.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toby Chopra, Giles Elgood and Gareth Jones)