Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Picture: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Picture: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed a referendum to push back against EU pressure to change an anti-LGBTQ law that has prompted a furious reaction in the bloc, including calls to cut off the nation’s funding.

The move suggests Orban, who next year is facing the most closely fought parliamentary election since he returned to power in 2010, is digging in his heels in Hungary’s fight with the EU about democratic values. It may also make it less likely that billions of euros of the bloc’s pandemic funding will be released quickly.

“When the pressure on our homeland is so great, then only the will of the people is able to defend Hungary,” Orban said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

The announcement comes as the four-term Hungarian leader is under fire for reportedly deploying invasive spyware to monitor his critics, including journalists, lawyers, an opposition politician and a media tycoon. Hungary was the only EU country named to have bought the Pegasus surveillance tool from Israel’s NSO group. The government hasn’t confirmed or denied the reports.

The referendum will include five questions, including whether “small children should be exposed to limitless content that influences their sexuality” or whether “small children should be exposed to media content showing gender change”, Orban said.

Hungary recently outlawed media content to minors that authorities deem to “promote homosexuality”, the latest in wave of legislation targeting the LGBTQ community. Earlier, Orban’s government effectively banned adoption for same-sex couples and scrapped the right to have legal recognition of gender change.

The EU has started legal action against Hungary on the LGBTQ law and decided against authorising the distribution of pandemic funding on concerns about judicial independence and corruption. Orban’s government says the two issues are linked.

The EU won’t approve Hungary’s €7.2bn in stimulus funding as long as Orban doesn’t roll back a judicial overhaul, which gave him sway over parts of the court system, and doesn’t give guarantees to step up its fight against graft related to EU funds, Hvg.hu news website reported on Tuesday, citing an interview with EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders.

In a separate announcement, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony — the front-runner to win the united opposition’s primary later this year for the right to challenge Orban — said he was also proposing a referendum on other issues.

They include whether voters support the construction of a controversial Orban-backed Chinese university campus in the capital and whether they agree to block a government plan to hand over the operation of the country’s roads to private companies.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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