A Franco-German plan to restart talks with Vladimir Putin has been rejected at a fractious EU summit that resulted in a decision to explore economic sanctions against Russia instead.
The two-day gathering in Brussels also included an “emotional” debate over LGBT rights in Hungary, as EU leaders confronted Viktor Orbán over a law that will ban gay people from being shown in educational and entertainment content for minors.
The two issues combined to make what was meant to be a routine summit of the 27 EU leaders into a much more bruising encounter. Tensions were raised after France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel blindsided other leaders by proposing talks with Putin, following Joe Biden’s summit with the Russian president last week.
The move backfired, with Poland and the Baltic states leading the charge, arguing that talking to Putin was a concession that would not change the Kremlin’s behaviour. Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, said it was “like we try to engage the bear to keep a pot of honey safe”.
Merkel, attending her last EU summit as a sitting head of government, said it had not been an easy discussion on Russia. “Personally I would have liked to have taken a bolder step here,” she told reporters after the meeting finished in the small hours of Friday morning. “But it’s also good as it is, and we will continue to work on this.”
Instead of talks with Putin, the EU27 toughened their approach: in the final summit communique, EU leaders stressed “the need for a firm and coordinated response by the EU and its member states to any further malign, illegal and disruptive activity by Russia, making full use of all instruments at the EU’s disposal”. The leaders tasked the EU institutions “to present options for additional restrictive measures including economic sanctions”.
The Russia debate came after EU leaders confronted Orbán over LGBT rights in Hungary, in what one official described as an “emotional” debate. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who has clashed with Orbán over the rule of law in previous summits, made his feelings plain as he arrived at the summit: “For me, Hungary has no place in the EU any more.”
Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, the first EU leader to be married to a same-sex partner, said Orbán had crossed a red line. “I did not become gay. I am, it is not a choice,” he was reported to have said according to a diplomatic source. “Some years ago we had dinner in Budapest together with my husband. I don’t recognise you [Orbán] any more.”
Defying his critics, the Hungarian leader rejected all charges of homophobia and said the law was meant to ensure parents had the choice over how to educate their children. Ahead of the summit, Orbán said EU leaders had not read the Hungarian law and claimed he was “defending the rights of the homosexual guys”.
Leaving the summit, Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, who wore a rainbow pin in his lapel, described the discussion as “unprecedented”. “This was not a diplomatic discussion, this was quite confrontational,” he said.
Only Poland and Slovenia – the latter “a little bit” – had offered Hungary support, De Croo said.