BRUSSELS — The European Union exposed some of its deepest divisions in its final scheduled summit meeting before the summer break on Friday.
There were significant differences among the 27 member states on issues such as culture, sex education, the rule of law, and foreign policy, particularly toward neighbouring Russia.
Hungary and its new sex education law, which critics say targets the L.G.B.T. community, proved the most emotional topic, with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel describing what being gay has meant to him and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte openly questioning whether Hungary would be better off leaving the European Union if it disagreed with the bloc’s laws and values.
However, policies toward Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, were also hotly debated early Friday morning, during a lengthy working dinner that didn’t end until 2 a.m. After President Biden met Mr. Putin in Geneva, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France reacted angrily to a joint effort to amend a policy paper to call for a summit meeting between the European Union and Russia, which was rebuffed angrily by Central European leaders and others, including Sweden and the Netherlands, as hasty and ill-advised.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins stated, “The Kremlin does not see free concessions as a sign of strength.”
Even countries that are normally supportive of Franco-German initiatives criticised the effort for being ill-prepared and launched without prior consultation. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron argued that the European Union should establish its own channels to Moscow rather than relying on the Americans. In general, Germans have always believed in keeping lines of communication open with Russia almost regardless of how it behaves, whereas Mr. Macron has been attempting, with limited success, to reset France’s relations with Moscow.
Germany was the primary mover in this case, with French assistance.
Early Friday, a visibly tired Ms. Merkel stated flatly, “It was not possible to agree that we would meet immediately at the leaders’ level, but what is important to me is that the dialogue format is retained and that we are working on it.” “Personally, I would have liked to have taken a bolder step here,” she added. She did, however, say that the leaders agreed on the conditions for such a summit meeting after “a very detailed and also not an easy discussion.”
Mr. Macron stated that it is critical for the European Union to speak to Russia with a “unified voice” and a “structured agenda,” rather than simply reacting to events.
At the same time, the leaders unanimously agreed to impose harsh new sanctions on key sectors of the Belarusian economy in response to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s anti-democratic crackdown and the state hijacking of a passenger plane to arrest a young dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich. They also extended existing sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The most painful topic was Hungary and its new law, which prohibits the depiction or promotion of homosexuality to those under the age of 18, as an addition to legislation targeting paedophiles. Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended the legislation, which was signed into law on Wednesday, before the summit meeting began, as an effort to protect children, claiming that it would have no impact on adults’ rights.
Many leaders, however, saw it as an attempt to stigmatise the L.G.B.T. community and link it to paedophilia, and thus a violation of European Union treaties protecting individual rights. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, called the law “a travesty” and said it “clearly discriminates against people based on their sexual orientation” and violates “the fundamental values of the European Union: human dignity, equality, and respect for human rights.”
Others, according to diplomats present, were more scathing in Mr. Orban’s face, wondering what had happened to a man who came to power as a defender of democracy and an opponent of totalitarianism.
According to diplomats, Mr. Orban defended the legislation, claiming that it was intended to protect children while leaving sexual orientation decisions to parents rather than schools. He claimed that the law’s critics misunderstood it and that it was not aimed at the gay community. “I am being attacked from all sides,” Mr. Orban said at one point, despite receiving some backing from Poland and Slovenia.
Mr. Orban stated prior to the meeting, “I was a freedom fighter in the Communist regime.” Homosexuality was punishable, and I fought for their liberty and rights. I am fighting for the rights of homosexual men. However, this law is not about them; it is about the rights of children and parents.”
Mr. Bettel was not having it. “I used to respect Mr. Orban,” he said before the summit, adding, “Europe is about rights and obligations, not just laws and subsidies.”
Mr. Bettel shared an intensely personal account of discovering he was gay and how difficult it was to tell his parents. “The most difficult thing for me was to accept myself when I realised I was in love with a person of my sex, was how to say to my parents, how to say to my family,” he said, emphasising that gay youth are more likely to commit suicide if they do not accept who they are.
Mr. Bettel, who occasionally travels to official meetings with his husband six years after their marriage, said that conflating homosexuality with paedophilia or pornography was wrong, as was stigmatising people, and that he did not see himself as a threat to anyone.
“I didn’t wake up one morning after seeing some advertising and decide to become gay,” Mr. Bettel explained. “That is not the way life works. It’s in my blood; I didn’t choose it. And accepting oneself is difficult enough; being stigmatised on top of that is too much.”
Mr. Rutte later described Mr. Bettel’s intervention, saying, “Everyone had tears in their eyes.”
The debate, according to Charles Michel, President of the European Council, is critical to the functioning of the bloc and its democracy. However, the new law is only the latest chapter in Mr. Orban’s long-running feud with the European Union. His government has been accused of erecting a “illiberal democracy,” of tampering with the news media and the courts, of misusing EU funds, of playing with anti-Semitism, and of mistreating minorities and migrants. His party, Fidesz, left the European People’s Party, the main center-right political grouping in the European Parliament, just before it was to be expelled.
Micheal Martin, the Irish Taoiseach, stated, “There was absolutely no doubt leaving that meeting that Hungary was left in no doubt that a line had been crossed, and without question it would have implications in terms of future funding decisions.”
Mr. Rutte told Mr. Orban openly that if Hungary did not want to be a part of the European community of values, it should leave the EU.
Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, described Mr. Rutte’s remarks as “just another episode in the political blackmailing series.” Hungary does not want to leave the European Union. On the contrary, we want to save it from hypocrites,” she tweeted.
The commission is now expected to charge Hungary with violating the treaties before the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court. Hungary has previously accepted the court’s rulings, but, like most courts, it does not provide particularly quick decisions.