(CN) — Under attack for allegedly targeting journalists with Israeli spyware and on the eve of a gay pride march in Budapest, far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is escalating his fight with European Union leaders by announcing his country will hold a referendum on whether minors should be shielded from seeing gay content.
With this blatantly anti-gay referendum, Orban, a bête noire for many Europeans due to his hard-right Christian views and authoritarian-like grip on power, is pushing the legal boundaries on what it means to be a member of the EU club of democratic nations that, in theory, have vowed to uphold Europe's liberal values.
Along with Poland's far-right ultra-nationalist government, Orban this summer is turning the dial up in a loud, nasty and consequential argument with EU leaders over whether national law or EU law rules supreme.
For the nationalist leaders in Poland and Hungary, the answer is simple: National law rules. But EU leaders and the bloc's high court, the European Court of Justice, argue the union's founding treaties have given EU law primacy over national laws in many areas.
On Wednesday, faced with accusations that his government misused the Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli security firm to monitor and seize control of the smartphones of journalists and others, Orban suddenly announced the nationwide referendum on gay content.
“LGBTQ activists visit kindergartens and schools and conduct sexual education classes. They want to do this here in Hungary as well,” Orban said in a video statement he posted on Facebook.
Besides being viewed as discriminatory, his sudden calling of a referendum was seen as a way to deflect attention away from the Pegasus controversy.
A consortium of journalists and human rights activists this week began releasing a series of articles about alleged misuse of the spyware by governments around the world. The reporting is based on a leak of about 50,000 phone numbers targeted by the spyware, a product of the NSO Group, an Israeli company.
In Hungary, the consortium found the Pegasus spyware may have targeted the telephone numbers of 10 lawyers, an opposition politician and five journalists, according to The Guardian newspaper.
On Wednesday, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs lashed out at the allegations. He claimed they were based on “flimsy conclusions.” He said Hungary has strict laws regulating state surveillance.
“They’re trying very, very hard with this story,” he said. “So great is their exertion, as we say in Hungarian, you can smell the perspiration.”
The anti-gay referendum also serves as a brazen riposte to EU leaders who said they are suing Hungary over a new law passed by the parliament in Budapest that seeks to bar minors from getting access to LGBTQ content.
“Europe will never allow parts of our society to be stigmatized: be it because of whom they love, because of their age, their ethnicity, their political opinions, or their religious beliefs,” vowed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in announcing legal challenges against both Hungary and Poland for actions deemed to be discriminatory attacks on LGBTQ communities in their countries.
The commission is seeking to overturn Hungary's new law which prohibits or limits access for people under the age of 18 to content “that promotes or portrays the so-called ‘divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality.'” Also, the commission wants to throw out a Hungarian law that requires children's books containing LGBTQ content to include a disclaimer.
In Poland, the commission is challenging Polish authorities in various cities and regions that declared themselves to be so-called “LGBT-ideology free zones.”
Orban, a smooth-talking politician who studied at the University of Oxford, is seen both as a highly influential and dangerous figure within EU circles.
Since being essentially drummed out by the mainstream conservative European People's Party in March, Orban is trying to form a new coalition of far-right political forces in Europe with like-minded politicians such as League leader Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, in France.
With the fall of communism, Orban was reared as a reform-minded anti-communist and actually studied political science at Oxford University through a scholarship from Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros, who Orban now routinely targets with what is viewed as anti-Semitic rhetoric.
During one election, Orban put up anti-immigrant billboards on Budapest streets with Soros's face plastered on them. Accusing Soros of using his vast wealth to promote a multicultural society through immigration, Orban has angered EU leaders by shutting down a Soros-funded university in Budapest and banning Soros-funded organizations that defend the rights of immigrants.
This week, Kovacs, Orban's spokesman, suggested Soros was behind the reporting on the Pegasus spyware. Amnesty International’s Security Lab and the Canadian organization Citizen Lab helped with the investigation. Kovacs said both organizations receive money from Soros as does a Hungarian media outlet, Direckt36, that is part of the investigative consortium.
“So, yes, let readers decide if this is objective and whether reporters are asking the right [questions],” Kovacs tweeted, as reported by Haaretz, the Tel Aviv-based newspaper. The newspaper charged Orban's government was using Soros as an “old scapegoat.”
Orban wasn't always a bête noire. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as communism was falling, he helped found a party that purported to uphold Western liberal values, the Alliance of Young Democrats. He rose to prominence in Hungary through his outspoken resistance to Soviet rule.
In 1998, at only age 35, Orban became prime minister when his Alliance of Young Democrats, better known by its acronym Fidesz, joined a coalition. At the time, he was hailed as a bright mainstream conservative.
His first term as prime minister was short-lived but he returned to power in 2010. He's ruled ever since and increasingly expressed ultra-nationalist and extremist views while also allegedly running a corruption-riddled government.
In 2018, the European Parliament opened so-called sanctions proceedings against Hungary, a first for the Brussels parliament. The previous year, the European Commission launched sanctions proceedings against Poland.
Such proceedings, in theory, could lead to a member state losing the right to vote on EU affairs. But in reality the proceedings are mostly symbolic because EU law requires unanimity among the other 26 member states for a country to be sanctioned and Poland and Hungary have vowed to protect each other from such punishment. The requirement for unanimity in many areas is seen as a major flaw within the EU's legal framework because it is so difficult to find consensus among such diverse countries.
There also is no mechanism for kicking a member state out of the EU. Still, fines and other sanctions are possible and bureaucrats in Brussels are trying to find ways to punish Hungary and Poland. One ploy being considered is restricting the flow of EU funds to both countries.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.