The European Commission has threatened to take legal action against Hungary unless it repeals a new law banning the "promotion" of homosexuality and gender transition to children, which critics call a crude attack on LGBT rights.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the commission, condemned the law during a debate in the European Parliament, where some members want Hungary to be made to wait for billions of euro in EU recovery funds until it addresses longstanding concerns over corruption and its attitude towards the rule of law.
“This law puts homosexuality and gender re-assignment on a par with pornography. This law uses the protection of children – to which we are all committed – as an excuse to severely discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation,” Ms von der Leyen said on Wednesday.
“This law is disgraceful. If Hungary doesn’t set things right, the commission will use the powers vested in it as guardian of the [EU] treaties.”
As part of an "anti-paedophilia act" passed last month, a Hungarian parliament that is dominated by allies of nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban made it illegal to show any content "promoting" homosexuality or gender transition to under-18s.
Critics say the measures not only stigmatise LGBT people by associating them with child abuse, but also make it impossible to offer sex education classes and run effective school programmes to combat intolerance and bullying.
A day before the law is due to enter force on Thursday, Hungary reportedly fined the distributor of a children’s book about a boy with two mothers about €700 for failing to indicate that it featured characters “different from a normal family”.
Mr Orban insists the law does not discriminate against sexual minorities, but rather shields children from inappropriate material and ensures that their parents have the primary role in teaching them about sex and related issues.
"What a shame! The so-called debate today in the European Parliament on Hungary's child protection law was a circus parade, a new level of colonial and moral imperialism, Hungary-bashing and Orbanophobia," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote n Twitter.
Justice minister Judit Varga, meanwhile, insisted that "Brussels has not thrown back Hungary's recovery plan! We remain open for a constructive dialogue with the European Commission" on Budapest's request for €7.2 billion to help the national economy overcome the effects of the pandemic.
The EU has taken legal action against Hungary over Mr Orban's policies against migrants, civil society groups and the liberal Central European University, which moved from Budapest to Vienna to escape pressure from his government.
Calls are now growing for tougher measures against Hungary, however, and the LGBT law sparked heated debate at a recent EU summit, when Dutch premier Mark Rutte asked Mr Orban why his country did not leave the bloc if it objected to its basic laws and values.
Mr Orban said afterwards of what he calls the EU’s liberal elite: “They behave like the colonialists of old, who told other countries what laws they were allowed to have, how they should live and how they should behave.”