EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Hungary's reputation in the EU is facing another potential battering after Budapest police blocked Gay Pride marchers from gathering in front of parliament later this year.
Tamas Dombos from the Hungarian gay rights group Hatter Support Society told EUobserver on Tuesday (15 February) that police are likely to give the go-ahead for a different route for the rally, due in June, but that this is not the point.
"The organisers decided to make the event more political than in previous years. We need the march to end in front of parliament in order to increase our visibility," he said.
In an embarrassing twist for the Hungarian EU presidency, the police used the EU chairmanship itself as justification. The official decision says tourists coming to see a presidency photo exhibition in parliament square could be vexed by the marchers, Mr Dombos reported. It also says official motorcades relating to presidency visits could be obstructed.
"Hungary is representing the whole of the EU, not just in Europe, but worldwide, and this gives a bad message. The EU is supposed to stand up for human rights," the campaigner added.
The march comes in the context of a general swing to the right under Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party.
Rights campaigners are worried that a Fidesz-proposed constitutional amendment will make it impossible to legalise gay marriage in future by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
They are also concerned that Annamaria Szalai, the head of Hungary's new National Media and Telecommunication Authority, has indicated she will use her sweeping powers to protect what she calls "family values." Ms Szalai earlier in her career edited a pornographic magazine called Miami Press.
Asked if he thinks that Mr Orban is a homophobe, Mr Dombos said: "He is a political strategist. His party has changed its position so violently it's hard to know what they really think and what are political games."
For its part, Brussels on Tuesday fired a warning shot. "The European Commission has no legal authority to intervene in how member states organise public meetings. When implementing national law, member states must respect fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, as required by their own constitutional order and international obligations," it said in a statement.
Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld said: "We cannot accept the EU being led by a presidency that disrespects equality and freedom of assembly."
The Gay Pride organisers first complained to press on Valetine's Day in a move designed to maximise pain. The Hungarian presidency has already come under fire at EU-level for trying to curb press freedom, harvest extra taxes from foreign firms and for putting a carpet in the EU Council building showing Hungary with enlarged borders.
When asked about Gay Pride by EUobserver on Tuesday, the Hungarian mission to the EU said the Hungarian government should answer the questions. The Hungarian government then passed the hot potato to the Budapest police, with a reply pending.
A Hungarian official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said police have special safety concerns about parliament after anti-government riots in 2006. He added that if the far-right holds a counter-march in June then police might find it hard to keep the peace inside the square.