No acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ rights in Katalin Novák’s presidential veto8 min read
In a rare departure from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungarian President Katalin Novák vetoed a recent law which has been widely interpreted as discriminatory toward LGBTQ+ citizens.While the Hungarian Parliament had the power to override Novák’s veto and persist with the law in its initial form, the surprising decision has been made to instead modify the bill and remove its controversial parts according to Novák’s critique.
This series of events has been unusual because the Hungarian government has repeatedly passed anti-LGBTI laws since the beginning of Orbán’s leadership. In 2010, the Constitution was updated to clearly define marriage as being “between a man and woman.” More recently, in 2021, a propaganda law was introduced prohibiting any sources that are deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change in schools, limiting access to content and advertisements which “promote or portray” the “divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth, sex change or homosexuality.” Another law has recently introduced a block on new applications for gender recognition.
Given that politicians in Orbán’s administration have staunchly defended these implementations over the last decade, the recent presidential veto does not signal a shift in Hungary’s position on LGBTI rights.
Transposition of EU Directive 2019/1937
On 11 April 2023, the Hungarian parliament passed a law titled “On Complaints, Whistleblowing and Rules on Reporting Abuse,” with the reported intention of adopting an EU directive to protect whistle-blowers.
This whistle-blower protection act set aside the previous one first adopted in 2013, and, after long anticipation, transposes EU Directive 2019/1937 into the Hungarian legal system. As stated by the EU, the purpose of the law is to prevent any serious harm to the public interest caused by unlawful activities and abuse of law within any organisation. It is, therefore, designed to limit the repercussions for whistle-blowers through targeted protection and other measures. Specifically, the law increases the current obligations of employers toward their employees and it is now compulsory for employers with 50 members of staff or more to establish internal channels for whistleblowing to emphasise confidentiality in the reporting process.
In the version adopted by the Hungarian parliament this April, however, Chapter III of the law would allow people in Hungary to “report on those who challenge the constitutionally recognised role of marriage and the family” as well as “those who contest children’s rights to an identity appropriate to their sex at birth.” As such, the controversial chapter does not explicitly state what is considered to be an offence besides publicly identifying as LGBTQ+. Nor does it outline what the legal consequences should be for any breach of the law.
In terms of impact, this lack of clarity could lead to arbitrary interpretation and implementation of the law. For instance, queer couples could be legitimately reported to authorities for failing to fit the constitutional definition of marriage (being between a man and a woman) as interpreted by the individual authority concerned. Meanwhile, the latter section targets trans and nonbinary people. It not only determines their very identity to be a threat to children, but it also deems it a reportable offence.
Intervention by President Novák
On 21 April, President Novák submitted a letter to the National Assembly and Speaker of the House László Kövér outlining her reasoning for the veto. While failing to explicitly mention LGBTI rights in her letter, she argued that the law is too vaguely formulated to be effectively used in practice. This is especially the case when seeking to ensure it respects the constitutional right to freedom of expression. She therefore wrote that it “does not strengthen but rather weakens the protection of fundamental values.”
In addition to this, Novák also expressed that the law contained passages irrelevant to the original purpose of the EU law. Novák argued the importance of ensuring compatibility between the transposed law with Hungary’s Fundamental Law (the constitution). In particular, it should be guaranteed that the law itself is not illegal by contradicting the right to freedom of expression as stated in the Constitution.
Novák’s support for family values
Before her position as President, Novák was a Member of Parliament for the right-wing Fidesz party. She has been a vocal supporter of traditional family values through her roles as Minister for Family, State Secretary for Family and Youth, and Chair of the Political Network for Values.
She oversaw the introduction of a life-long income-tax exemption for mothers with more than four children, aid for families with three or more children to purchase cars or larger accommodations, as well as legal obstacles for the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Each of these initiatives was reportedly created with the intention of increasing Hungary’s birth rate.
As President, she has continued to promote her ideas of the traditional family unit and concern for the national birth rate. Some of her recent comments include “We want babies rather than migrants” and “Europe is the continent of empty cradles.” In a speech which has since been criticised by Human Rights Watch, she was also recorded saying that Hungarian women should not give up their “privileges” over a “misguided fight for emancipation.”
However, Novák has consistently sought to improve the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. This is partly shown through her position as Vice President of the International Union of Democratic Women. In an interview regarding her presidency, she stated that she “will not be a puppet” and that she “will defend the unity of the nation,” and “never support the dismantling of the rule of law.”
Novák’s attention to the rule of law throughout her political career is not only evidenced in her letter to parliament, but is also consistent with Fidesz party rhetoric regarding anti-LGBTI laws. This time, however, it has been used to reject rather than justify such a law.
A history of lawsuits
The Fidesz-ruling government under Viktor Orbán has been clamping down on LGBTI rights for more than a decade and has come up against the EU repeatedly to defend these laws in international courts. The government has consistently argued for the protection of Hungary’s national Constitution and national autonomy over the protection of human rights by international standards.
On the Whistle-blowers law, the European Commission has referred Hungary to the Court of Justice of the EU. The Commission stated that it considered the law to be in violation of the EU’s internal market rules, the fundamental rights of individuals, and EU values. This action was supported by the European Parliament and 14 EU Member States including Germany and France. It is also worth noting that Slovenia has been the only CEE state to support the Commission in its legal action.
In 2022, Hungary had billions of EU funds withheld until reforms were implemented to improve judicial independence and tackle corruption. However, even in this context, parliamentary support for the propaganda law did not lessen when the European Commission issued a lawsuit against the bill. Instead, no efforts were made to appease the EU with regard to the law, despite the country already facing the European Commission in court in 2010 about LGBTI discrimination in its new Constitution.
The propaganda law was introduced just a few weeks after Hungary took on the role of President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Among other duties, this is a role which typically invites greater scrutiny of the human rights record of the presidential country.
Orbán, however, defended the propaganda legislation, arguing that “Gender propaganda is not just … rainbow chatter, but the greatest threat stalking our children. We want our children to be left alone …. This kind of thing has no place in Hungary, and especially not in our schools.” Meanwhile, Hungary’s Justice Minister, Judit Varga, said that Budapest would fight in the Court of Justice of the EU to defend the law. She submitted a counterclaim to the court arguing that the government will maintain its stance whereby education was a matter for national governments to decide.
The start of a new era?
The president’s letter to the National Assembly of Hungary contained an unusual degree of criticism for Parliament. However, instead of focusing on transposing the law more directly, the primary intention for Novák’s veto was to protect the national constitution and the legitimacy of Hungary’s rule of law.
Throughout her career, Novák has promoted traditional family values and national democracy, and her letter reflects this tendency. The president focuses on the vague wording of the law and its interpretation, rather than on the potential effects it would have on Hungary’s queer community.
Moreover, the views of the EU can do little to incentivise authorities in Hungary to withdraw support for such discriminatory laws. Since the beginning of Orbán’s leadership, the country has developed a long history of reducing LGBTI freedoms, even in the context of heavy international criticism and sanctions. These actions have frequently been justified by a need to respect the national Constitution and laws.
As such, Novák has instead persisted with both her own, and her Party’s, focus on protecting the Constitution and national law in Hungary. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that the veto signals a shift in attitudes towards LGBTI rights at the governmental level.
Novak’s veto may still have heavy consequences in Hungarian politics. This is Novák’s second veto since the start of her presidency. Given her history of unwavering support for Orbán, this break from the Prime Minister and his party could suggest more clashes are to come between the President and Parliament.