BRUSSELS -- French president Emmanuel Macron said on Friday that the European Union needs to fight a “cultural" and “civilizational" battle to stop the rise of illiberal ideas across the 27-nation bloc that he believes are threatening European values at their core.
Macron spoke at the end of summit of EU leaders in Brussels where they strongly clashed with Hungary’s prime minister over new legislation that bans the display of LGBT issues to children in that country.
Macron condemned the new law in the name of “human dignity" and “individual freedom," throwing his support behind the EU's executive commission's plan to start legal action against Hungary.
But the French president insisted it would be wrong to point the finger at Orban without reflecting on the reasons pushing some countries in eastern Europe to turn their back on democratic values.
“How do people in Europe come to this?" Macron told journalists. “We see in several member countries like Hungary, Poland and many others, an anti-liberal conservatism against our values. We have to respect it. But it is now undermining those values and what has built the core of our western liberal democracy for centuries."
The Hungarian law has also turned the spotlight on the EU’s inability to rein in the “illiberal democracies” among its ranks like Hungary and Poland. Critics charge that the two countries' deeply conservative, nationalist and anti-migrant governments have flouted the bloc’s democratic standards and values for years.
The EU has repeatedly warned that democratic standards are being challenged in some countries, particularly in Hungary and Poland. Earlier this year, the European Union’s executive arm also condemned Slovenia’s right-wing prime minister Janez Janša for a series of aggressive comments about journalists.
“We must give content, perspectives and meaning to our liberal values, in the political sense of the term, in the philosophical sense of the term, and show the strength of our democracies," Macron said. “It is not so much the backsliding of the laws — which we must obviously and intransigently fight — that concerns me. It is the backsliding in the minds and mentalities. And as such it is a cultural, civilizational battle that we must fight."
Macron admitted he does not hold a magic recipe to fix what he sees as a “deep trend" in Europe but suggested that bringing intellectuals and civil society into the debate could help revive democratic values in countries where their appeal has been eroded.
He also said the just-launched Conference of the Future of Europe could serve as a springboard for “deep change" in Europe.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the debate over the Hungarian law raises broader questions about the direction the EU is heading in, whether it should strive for “ever closer union" and what should be done when clashes arise over fundamental values.
“This is something that isn’t just called into question by Hungary, but which we certainly have to discuss at greater depth and length,” she said.
The Hungarian law was signed Wednesday by Hungarian president Janos Ader after Hungary’s parliament passed the bill last week. It prohibits sharing content on homosexuality or sex reassignment to people under 18 in school sex education programs, films or advertisements.
The government says the law aims to protect children, but critics say it links homosexuality with pedophilia. Orban has ruled out rescinding the law, insisting it does not target homosexuals.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she detailed the commission’s legal concerns during the summit and that it’s now up to the Hungarian government to respond.
“There was an overwhelming support in the room that we will defend our values, because Europe is first of all a Union of values," she said. “It is first of all a Union of values, of protection of minorities, of non-discrimination, and a culture of tolerance and acceptance is a bed rock against discrimination.”
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.