Issue 259: 20 12 10: Poland & Hungary

10 December 2020

Poland, Hungary and the EU

Facing the music.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The revelation about Chopin was a gift, but who could have guessed what would follow?

The long-running conflict between Poland / Hungary and the rest of the EU has been coming to a head in recent weeks.  Brussels is alarmed that the right-wing nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest are showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies by passing laws which appear to undermine judicial independence, media freedom and human rights.  To combat this challenge to the EU’s core beliefs, Brussels inserted a ‘rule of law’ clause into the bloc’s €1.1 trillion budget proposed for the next seven years.  The clause means that members who don’t respect liberal democracy won’t be able to access funds.

But both Poland and Hungary then vetoed the budget (at the eleventh hour – it’s supposed to come into force on 1 January) to protest against that clause.  For good measure they vetoed the EU’s €750 billion pandemic recovery fund too.  It seems an odd protest, given that both countries must have known they were signing up to a liberal, secular and democratic club when they joined the EU, and given that they’re among the biggest beneficiaries of EU funding (Poland would get over €100 billion from the package, Hungary almost €50 billion).  However, it looks as if Poland and Hungary are now holding the other twenty-four member states to ransom in an attempt to get the ‘rule of law’ clause thrown out.  The protest has opened up an ideological divide within Europe – between a liberal democratic West and a nationalist and increasingly authoritarian East – which many believe threatens the very existence of the EU.

Gay rights play a central role in the conflict between these two ideologies: in the first place, discrimination against minority groups is often a sign that a wider attack on civil liberties is on the way; and in the second, the issue of homosexuality is very efficient at highlighting the contradictions, absurdities, injustices and inner conflicts of authoritarianism.  This is evident in Russia, with the nationalist and homophobic regime’s almost comic inability to come to terms with the fact that Tchaikovsky, Russia’s national composer, was gay (see To Russia, With Love, Shaw Sheet 03/09/2015).

Poland’s ruling elite likes to present gay rights as a corrosive import from the decadent West, as a subversive threat to the country’s culture, traditions and institutions.  Prominent figures in the nationalist parties of the governing coalition – the Law and Justice party, the League of Polish Families and the Self-Defence Party – have been outspokenly homophobic.  For the last five years, nationalists have been encouraging towns across the country to declare themselves “LGBT free zones”.

Bust of Chopin; photo by Akela3

Poland’s national composer is Frédéric Chopin.  He’s a figurehead for patriots and an icon of Polish culture.  His preserved heart in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw is a nationalist shrine.  Last week, however, it was revealed that Chopin was in fact gay.  A documentary broadcast on Swiss television pointed out that the composer’s amorous letters to his male friends have been ignored, overlooked, mis-translated or ‘edited’.  Arts journalist Moritz Weber of Switzerland’s SRF predicts that “Chopin’s love for men” will present the Warsaw government with a “public relations crisis.”  Chopin’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, of course.  All that really matters is the music.  But the nationalists can’t have it both ways.  They can’t claim that homosexuality is foreign to the nation and its culture if the Pole they venerate for seeing so deeply into the heart of Poland and giving its soul such a beautiful voice in his music was gay.

And then, hard on the heels of this ‘public relations crisis’ for the Polish government, came an even bigger public relations crisis for the Hungarian government.

Hungary has a similarly problematic attitude to gay rights as Poland.  Prime minister Viktor Orbán and his governing hard-right nationalist party, Fidesz, have introduced a number of anti-gay measures recently, including bans on same-sex marriage and on adoption by same sex couples.  The second biggest party in the Hungarian parliament, Jobbik (‘The Movement For a Better Hungary’), is openly homophobic.  The Hungarian State Opera House recently cancelled performances of Billy Elliot after a pro-government newspaper protested, claiming that the show could encourage homosexuality among children.

A week ago, Belgian police raided a party in central Brussels and arrested twenty-five people for breaking the coronavirus curfew and social restrictions.  The party happened to be above a gay bar in the night club district of the city and has been described as a lockdown gay sex orgy.  One of the men attending seemed particularly keen to avoid arrest.  He attempted to flee by jumping naked from a first-floor window, injuring himself in the process.  The police say that he then tried to claim European parliamentary immunity, identifying himself as MEP Jozsef Szajer from Hungary.

Now, it’s rather wonderful that Mr Szajer can enjoy and celebrate his true nature in the freedom of liberal Belgium in a way that perhaps he can’t in his repressive homeland.  But it seems that he himself is at least partly responsible for that repression.  He’s a founding member of the governing far-right nationalist Fidesz party and a close ally of prime minister Viktor Orbán.  Not only is he at the very heart of the Hungarian establishment but, according to The Times, he drafted the 2011 constitution to outlaw gay marriage (he included the commitment that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman”) and recently drafted a new clause to ban the adoption of children by gay couples.  Everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, of course, but again the nationalists really can’t have it both ways.  The charges of hypocrisy are far more appalling than the charges of breaking anti-coronavirus rules and regulations or the drugs charges (the police say that a Class A illegal substance was found in Mr Szajer’s backpack; he denies possession, but if true it adds to the charge of hypocrisy – he’s a lawyer, married to a former judge who is the head of Hungary’s national office of the judiciary).

The organiser of the party claims that they are regular events and are frequently attended by at least eight other Hungarian politicians from Fidesz and by senior figures from Poland’s governing Law and Justice party.  “Poles and Hungarians are the most frequent guests” he says.  “They come abroad for their fun.”  What a shame they don’t use their power and influence to campaign in their own countries so that their less privileged compatriots can enjoy the same fun.

All this makes that protest against the EU’s ‘rule of law’ clause seem even more odd than it did initially.  We knew what Poland and Hungary have to gain by accepting it – only €133 billion and €41 billion in funding.  Now we know what they have to lose  – only the absurd contradictions, hypocrisies and injustices of authoritarianism.



Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list