Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, talks to journalists as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, June 24, 2021. AP
Respect LGBT rights or leave the European Union, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told his Hungarian counterpart as the bloc's leaders confronted Viktor Orban over a law that bans schools from using materials seen as promoting homosexuality.
Several participants spoke of the most intense personal clash among the 27 EU leaders in years on Thursday night.
"It was really forceful, a deep feeling that this could not be. It was about our values; this is what we stand for," Rutte told reporters on Friday.
"I said 'Stop this, you must withdraw the law and, if you don't like that and really say that the European values are not your values, then you must think about whether to remain in the European Union'." French President Emmanuel Macron called it a battle over civilisation and culture.
Hungary is now likely to face a legal challenge at the EU's highest court. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said Budapest should also be subject to an as-yet untested procedure to cut EU funding for those who violate democratic rules.
The new mechanism was introduced as closely aligned conservative governments in Poland and Hungary have shielded one another for years from grave sanctions under existing tools to protect EU democratic and human rights values.
The provisions for schools have been included in a law primarily aimed at protecting children from paedophiles - a link that Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo described as "primitive".
In power since 2010 and facing an election next year, Orban has become increasingly conservative and combative in promoting what he says are traditional Catholic values under pressure from the liberal West.
He told reporters before the closed-door meeting that the law was not an attack on gay people but aimed at guaranteeing parents' right to decide on their children's sexual education.
The EU is pushing Orban to repeal the law - the latest in a string of restrictive policies towards media, judges, academics and migrants.
Seventeen out of 27 leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, signed a joint letter reaffirming their commitment to protecting gay rights.
"We all made it very clear which fundamental values we adhere to," she said.
Bettel, who is openly gay, said the only country other than Poland to support Orban in the discussion was Slovenia.
He said it was time for Brussels to test its new procedure: "Most of the time, money is more convincing than talk."