LONDON – When Germany played Hungary in a highly competitive Euro 2020 soccer game on Wednesday night, the two countries’ sports competition reflected a much larger off-field impact.
The two nations hold starkly opposing government attitudes on LGBT rights, with Hungary facing international criticism for a law formally enacted this week that bans the promotion of homosexuality or transgender issues in schools and appears to associate them with pedophilia.
Meanwhile, politicians in Germany called for the stadium in Munich to be lit up in the colors of the rainbow during Wednesday’s soccer game, as a gesture of support for LGBT rights and as a direct criticism of Hungary’s stance.
The application was rejected by the European football association UEFA as a violation of the rules of impartiality. After heavy criticism, especially on social media, UEFA later clarified its position in a statement On Wednesday he said it was “proud” to wear the rainbow colors, but the “request itself was political” and “linked to the presence of the Hungarian football team in the stadium”.
The decision has been criticized by German and European legislators as an own goal for UEFA and as a victory for the right-wing Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Nevertheless, many football fans took matters into their own hands and waved rainbow flags during the game, which also saw a German fan walking onto the field with a rainbow flag. Other stadiums and landmarks in Germany also shone in rainbow colors during the game.
The game ended in a 2-2 draw, but the struggle for progressive values and Hungary’s tough social conservatism rages on, with increasing pressure on the 27-nation European Union to which both countries belong to intervene.
It is a debate in which Hungary’s ultra-nationalist prime minister competes against the liberal leadership of the EU, which is there to ensure that all of its members follow a uniform standard of international laws, rules and regulations.
The controversy over Hungarian LGBT law also turned the soccer game into a larger symbolic showdown between competing visions for the future of Europe, putting Orbán against the largely liberal consensus of Western Europe.
The football scandal came just over a week after the Hungarian Parliament passed the bill banning the sharing of materials in schools that is supposed to promote homosexuality or gender transition.
Hungarian opposition parties boycotted the vote, while human rights groups condemned the law as anti-LGBT and organized protests in Hungary’s capital Budapest.
“This Hungarian bill is a shame”, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders vows to take all necessary measures to thwart the new lawwhich will come into effect in two weeks.
Legislators from at least 17 European countries – including Belgium, France, Germany and Ireland – also issued a statement this week condemning the law as “blatant form of discrimination and stigmatization of LGBTIQ people” and declares that it violates fundamental rights “under the pretext of protecting children”.
But Orbán is not changing course.
Speaking on arrival in an EU At a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, he ruled out a withdrawal of the law and insisted that it should not target homosexuals.
“It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the children and the parents,” Orbán said. “I defend homosexual men’s rights, but this law is not about them.”
Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter SzijjártóHe also defended the law and said on Tuesday that it was only aimed at pedophiles: “This law says nothing about the sexual orientation of adults.”
For Hungarian LGBT activist Viktória Radványi, 25, the solidarity of other Europeans on the football field was welcome and “really heartwarming,” she told NBC News.
“It gives us power … it makes people believe that this horror will eventually end,” she said.
But the lack of action on the part of the EU. So far, many have felt “abandoned” and “disappointed”, said Radványi, who is also a board member of Budapest Pride.
“Everyone is very scared and really scared,” she added, with many, including herself, thinking about keeping Hungary safe. “The constant fear and anxiety takes a toll.”
Orbán has questioned the broad social-liberal consensus in the EU. since returning to power in 2010. He has often criticized multiculturalism and immigration and advocated restricting the freedom of the press.
His message resonates with some Hungarians who are annoyed by interference from Brussels and the condescension of the EU. – a feeling that was also part of the UK’s 2016 Brexit decision.
Meanwhile, the EU has long accused Hungary of undermining the rule of law and has opened a formal legal investigation into Orbán’s government.
“He’s an autocrat,” Angel said of Orbán. “It’s not the EU against Hungary. … Most Hungarians are happy to be in the European family.”
However, Orbán’s government stance on LGBT rights will likely be upgraded to the Conservative vote in the country ahead of next year’s elections, Angel said.
“Your way of doing politics is terrible and always tries to find scapegoats,” he added. “You learned from Trump, I’m afraid … you don’t respect the basic rules and our values.”
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Lydia Gall, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on Eastern Europe, also said Hungary’s “rising authoritarian tendencies” would put the country on a “collision course” with the EU, warning that “Orbán’s playbook” was in danger of being successfully exported to be in other countries nearby, particularly Poland.
With next year’s elections, Orbán is becoming more and more combative on social issues and says he wants to protect traditional Christian values in the predominantly Catholic country against the excesses of Western liberalism.
A struggle between liberalism and populism that defines the EU. against Orbán may be too easy, argues Hans Kundnani, Senior Europe Research Fellow at the London think tank Chatham House.
Instead, Kundnani said, the political debate has shifted to cultural issues and identity politics, as the political left and right have increasingly converged on economic issues.
“Both sides have an incentive to address culture wars,” he told NBC News. “Issues of gender and LGBT equality have really become central to the way the EU sees itself.”
The Euro 2020 soccer tournament has already become a battlefield for competing identity politics after players kneeled ahead of the games in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the start of the tournament, during a friendly between Ireland and Hungary in Budapest, Hungarian fans whistled Irish players as they kneeled on the field as a sign of solidarity against racism.
Orbán was quick to condemn the kneeling gesture, declaring that “politics has no place in sport” and reprimanding the Irish team for “not provoking the hosts when you come as a guest”. Hungarians only kneel before God, their country and their loved ones, he said.