Hungary began the week at odds with the EU and ended the week even more so, dragging in its Central European neighbours along the way.
EU leaders began a two-day summit on June 24 in Brussels having to deal with the fallout from Hungary’s recently passed anti-LGBT legislation – a distraction from the issues of migration and Russia and Turkey relations it was supposed to be concentrating on.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday denounced the legislation – which bans the “display and promotion of homosexuality” among under-18s, including any discussions or dissemination of information in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change – for discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and going against the EU’s fundamental values. And she vowed to use all the legal powers of the Commission “to ensure that the rights of all EU citizens are guaranteed.”
For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban argues the law “does not contain any discriminatory elements”, because it is only designed to protect the rights of children, guarantee the rights of parents, and does not apply to the sexual orientation rights of those over 18 years of age. He branded the statement by von der Leyen as “shameful because it is based on untrue allegations”.
On Thursday, EU commissioners Thierry Breton and Didier Reynders claimed the bill would violate the bloc’s media and tech laws, as it “unjustifiably” limits the television and online content currently regulated in the EU under the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and the e-Commerce Directive.
Upping the ante, more than half of EU member states signed a joint declaration voicing “grave concerns” over the law and calling for the Commission to act over this “flagrant form of discrimination”. Belgium, the main driver behind the letter, approached all 27 member states asking them to put their name to the letter. Notably, all the largest members – such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain – were among the 17 signatories, though Hungary’s Central European neighbours – Czechia, Poland and Slovakia – all declined to sign it.
The reason for the Czech refusal to sign is unclear – even, it appears, to the government itself. Local media reported that Czech representatives in Brussels told them that the Belgian initiative went through the government in Prague. The Czech government office said that, frankly, they did not know why there was no Czech signature.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Thursday morning, as he arrived in Brussels ahead of the summit, that he wants to discuss the issue with Orban. The leaders were due to meet at a pre-summit coordination meeting of the Visegrad Four (V4) group. “It needs to be explained thoroughly… I can’t judge it, we agreed that we would have it explained in the V4 to be sure that the interpretations are correct,” Babis told reporters.
The prime minister added that Czechia is a liberal country supporting the rights of sexual minorities and that he has discussed the issue with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, the only openly gay leader of an EU country. He said he also plans to consult with Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek.
Poland, naturally, did not sign the letter that committed to “continue fighting against discrimination towards the LGBTI community.” This was no surprise given the campaign that the Warsaw government has waged against sexual minorities over the past few years. During that time, a third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions against “LGBT ideology”, while Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek announced a series of reforms, among which is restricting access to sexual education and replacing it with the promotion of the “traditional family” in schools.
Speaking earlier this week on German radio station RND, the Polish ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Przylebski, expressed sympathy for Hungary. Referring to the request from the Munich municipality (turned down by UEFA) to light its stadium in rainbow colours in protest at the new Hungarian legislation, the ambassador said he thought this kind of pressure on Budapest was “inappropriate and offensive”.
The ambassador added that the Hungarian parliament had the “unquestionable right to provide legal protection to children in schools, to protect them from homosexual themes”.
Slovak officials also remained silent on the issue and refused to protest the controversial law. While no official statement was released at the time of publication, news of Slovakia’s reticence was received disdainfully after a popular parody account’s take on the matter went viral.
“Guess which side Slovakia joined – the Middle Ages or the 21st century?” asked the account’s administrators in a Facebook post, which received more than 4,000 interactions and numerous aggrieved comments in less than a day.
Orban takes aim at European Parliament
Orban’s opening salvo against the EU in the past week began with a speech on the 30th anniversary of the Soviet troop withdrawal from Hungary, in which he outlined seven ways that he’d like to reform the EU and prevent its “Sovietization”.
As well as accusing Brussels of building an imperial European Union, attempting to override traditional values, presiding over economic failure and not letting in neighbouring Serbia run by his buddy Aleksandar Vucic, perhaps his most contentious idea was to disempower the European Parliament by allowing national parliaments to suspend the EU’s legislative process, if they found that national competences were being infringed.
“We want a democracy of democracies based on European nations,” Orbán said in the speech on June 19, reported on by the Infostart news site. “We are nationally based democrats against empire-builders.”
The speech inevitably got up Europhile noses, with Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt tweeting: “Viktor Orbán wants to tie the hands of the European Parliament, like he already did with the Hungarian one, and free media, and courts & ngo’s & academics & & & … There is a pattern, and it leads all the way to a Putinesque dictatorship.”
Dark clouds hang over Gazeta Wyborcza
In an online discussion with readers this week, Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, issued a warning that the end might be nigh for the illustrious newspaper if a conflict between the newsroom and the paper’s owner Agora is not resolved soon.
Michnik, who is a major historical figure in the anti-communist movement, has been key to turning Wyborcza into the leading newspaper in the country and perhaps in the region at large.
Wyborcza has been under enormous pressure since the nationalist-populist Law and Justice (PiS) came to power, facing numerous lawsuits from politicians linked to the governing camp and losing a significant share of its income that used to come from state advertising.
But the source of danger this time is not PiS, but something much closer to home. Agora, which was founded together with Wyborcza and has since become a leading media and entertainment company, is planning to restructure its press division, which would involve merging the successful wyborcza.pl website with another portal owned by the company, and putting both Wyborcza print and this online channel under common management.
The Gazeta Wyborcza newsroom argues this is a profit-driven decision that would destroy the newspaper and undermine the success of its online subscription model (the newspaper has been one of the most successful in the region in introducing a paywall, with about a quarter of a million subscribers). The journalists also argue that Wyborcza is today a crucial institution for Polish democracy and media freedom, particularly given its current parlous state under PiS, and that Agora should not be messing with its integrity.
Eye of the storm; Czechs train their guns on Brussels
At least three people are dead and hundreds injured after a tornado tore through Czech villages near the borders with Slovakia and Austria on Thursday evening. Pictures and videos reveal widespread devastation, with buildings destroyed and cars mangled. Marek Babisz, deputy mayor of Hrusky, told local media that half of his village had been destroyed. Jan Grolich, governor of the South Moravia region spoke of a “living hell”.
Rescuers, with assistance from Slovak and Austrian teams, reported that they are searching for people buried in the rubble. The interior ministry has declared a state of emergency. Local hospitals treated hundreds of injured. The main highway connecting Prague with Bratislava was closed and over 100,000 houses were without electricity overnight.
The storm, which also featured tennis-ball sized hail stones, arrived following a week or more of tropical temperatures in the Czech Republic. Meteorologists note that while tornados are not common in Europe they are not unknown. Early estimates suggest the storm that hit South Moravia on Thursday may have been an F4 tornado, meaning winds of close to 300km per hour.
The right of Czechs to defend themselves with a gun in self-defence is set to be enshrined in the constitution after the lower house passed an amendment on June 18. The move is a populist reaction to EU regulations tightening gun control that were implemented in 2018 in the wake of a wave of Jihadist attacks, in particular the tragic events in Paris in 2015.
Proponents of the change appear to have forgotten that when not pushing for more freedom to use guns, they like to boast that Czechia is rated as one of the ten safest countries in the world.
An earlier push in 2017 for a constitutional amendment that would have specified that Czechs with a firearms licence could use their weapon in the event of a terror attack failed to win support in parliament. Politicians from across the political spectrum have since been pushing for new legislation in a bid to prove their populist credentials in the face of what they claim is an assault by Brussels on Czech sovereignty. Such rhetoric plays well in the EU’s most Eurosceptic country. It also doesn’t hurt such political ambitions that over 300,000 Czechs currently hold a firearms licence. There are reported to be over 800,000 registered weapons in the country.
Czech lawmakers refute claims that the amendment will make the country more dangerous. They say that it will prevent further restrictions being placed on Czech gun ownership and strengthen Prague’s position regarding potential future EU regulation.
At the same time, Czechia has been obligated to implement the EU regulations introduced three years ago, having failed in a case it brought before the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg. The restrictions require gun owners to have their medical records monitored.
Violent crime is relatively rare in the Czech Republic and no major terrorist attacks have been carried out. However, mass shootings have occurred in recent years, the last in Ostrava in 2019, when seven people were killed and two injured by a shooter with a history of mental illness using an unlicensed weapon.
Slovaks could get paid for being vaccinated; ex-communists to lose pensions
In an effort to boost Slovakia’s flagging vaccination campaign, public health officials are coming up with unorthodox ways to motivate people to register for a jab. The latest include one-off payments or an exclusive lottery for the vaccinated, Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky confirmed, amid fears that the country could run out of people waiting for a jab in a matter of weeks.
In mid-May, more than 200,000 Slovaks were on the waiting list for one of the approved vaccines. A month later and this number had shrunk to just over 47,000, despite the availability of the Russian-made Sputnik V jab that was introduced in early June.
In the past few days, the waiting room experienced a sudden uptick as close to 20,000 Slovaks registered for a jab in the wake of coronavirus’s Delta variant appearing in the country. But health officials continue to worry because Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million, is still far from achieving its goal of immunising 60 per cent of its population. Only around 1.4 million people have received both doses of a vaccine so far, roughly half the intended target.
Lengvarsky’s ministry is now looking at the example of the US to incentivise vaccine-wary Slovaks to get a jab. In the past few months, two Americans won $1 million in a lottery reserved for the vaccinated. Restrictions on travel and curbs on attending sports and cultural events for those without a jab could also be in the works, the SME daily suggested.
While it’s unclear at what amount the Slovak government might set the lottery jackpot, other measures to boost immunisation are already in place. The one-shot Janssen vaccine has been available since June 21. And starting in July, people will also be able to get vaccinated at their GP clinic, an option that might convince more Slovaks to trust the vaccination process, polls show.
Only around 20,000 people have so far signed up for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which is yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, a figure well below the expectations of the former prime minister and current finance minister, Igor Matovic, who spearheaded Slovakia’s push to procure the Russian jab. Due to the lack of interest, Slovakia will be forced to sell or donate more than three-quarters of the 200,000 purchased doses of the vaccine, Lengvarsky said.
Argentina has already made known its wish to purchase Slovakia’s stock, while several countries of the Western Balkans, including Montenegro and Albania, are always looking to receive vaccines free of charge, the Dennik N daily reported.
Meanwhile, parliament decided that former members of the communist regime and its repressive apparatus will have their pensions reduced by the amount of years they spent working for the totalitarian regime.
The new law will enter into force in August. It was passed by a coalition of MPs who said former communist apparatchiks have enjoyed privileges and pensions disproportionately higher than the victims of their persecution.
“This legislature will primarily affect those who ran and administered politically motivated repressions during communism, or worked in institutions and organisations whose main goal was to maintain the communist regime at all costs,” MP Anna Andrejuvova of the ruling OLaNO movement explained.
Widows and widowers of former communist bureaucrats will lose all benefits that have survived their deceased partners. Former professional athletes and persons deemed to have aided dissenters and the persecuted will be exempt from the new law.