Article by Lea Schiller
When the UEFA declined a request to light up Munich’s Allianz Arena in rainbow colours, it was a decision that was supposed to keep the politics out of football. Instead, it brought on a wave of protest that made a spotlight shine on underlying political tensions in Europe. Munich’s mayor Dieter Reiter requested the stadium to be lit up in rainbow colours during Germany’s match against Hungary for their UEFA European Football Championship game on June 23. It was meant as a protest against a newly enacted law in Hungary which prohibits any content seen as promoting LGBTQ+ issues to under 18-year-olds (BBC, 2021). UEFA’s rejection didn’t keep the politics out of football. If anything, it brought football into politics. The wave of protest that swept across Germany as a response to UEFA’s denial drew attention not only to the discrimination of LGBTQ+ people in football but prompted prominent political figures to comment on what had caused it in the first place: Hungary’s LGBTQ+ laws.
How UEFA’s actions worsened the situation
Munich’s stadium lights were not the first controversial decision of the tournament. Just days before, UEFA had launched an investigation into the captain of Germany’s national team for wearing a rainbow armband during the team’s matches against France and Portugal. Germany’s Football Association (DFB) stated the rainbow armband was part of their campaigns for pride month and was meant to promote diversity (France24, 2021). In professional men’s football, there is to date no openly gay player. And the current climate in Germany’s national football league has been described as not accepting enough for players to come out without backlash (Deutsche Welle, 2021). UEFA ultimately decided the rainbow armband to be for a good cause and consequently dropped the investigation. But disapproval of the action remained among German fans and officials. When mayor Reiter’s request for rainbow lights in Munich’s arena was denied, this sentiment quickly turned into the desire for action: all over the country, other football stadiums were lit up in rainbow colours and rainbow flags were given out to fans in front of Allianz Arena on the day of the match (Schnitzler & Stroh, 2021). On the other side, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán cancelled his planned attendance of the game (Erlanger, 2021). Orbán stated that “whether the Munich football stadium or another European stadium lights up in rainbow colours is not a state decision” (BBC News, 2021). When asked about the new bill, Hungarian government officials have claimed that it does not infringe upon LGBTQ+ rights and was meant to protect children against paedophiles (BBC News, 2021).
UEFA tried to keep its tournament free of political controversies – but the underlying tension during the match between Germany and Hungary proved their efforts to be futile. The incident prompted widespread protests not only from activists. Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder commented that UEFA’s decision is a “shame” (Gehrke & Walker, 2021) and Germany’s Minister for Europe Michael Roth called on fans in the arena to show rainbow flags in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in Hungary (Gehrke & Walker, 2021). This shows that UEFA’s goal of keeping the politics out of the European Championships was fruitless to begin with: choosing to forbid rainbow lights in a stadium is as much of a political statement as accepting the request would have been.
Hungary’s extensive history of conflicts with the EU’s values
Hungary’s new LGBTQ+ content law is not the first time the country has come into conflict with the EU’s values and principles. In 2019, the Central European University (CEU) was forced to relocate from Budapest to Vienna as part of a sustained campaign against its founder by Viktor Orbán (Walker, 2019). In 2020, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that forcing the CEU to relocate was against EU law – but this decision came too late for the university, which had already moved most of its activities to Vienna (Thorpe, 2020). In 2018, the European Commission brought Hungary to the ECJ for violating the EU’s asylum policies. Two years later, the Court ruled in favour of the Commission – Hungary’s non-compliance with EU asylum policies was not justifiable according to the ECJ (Deutsche Welle, 2020). In March of 2020, Orbán ensured he would be able to rule indefinitely by decree (Stevis-Gridneff & Novak, 2020). In May of the same year, the Hungarian parliament voted in favour of ending the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people (Haynes, 2020). Since the EU’s legal options to control member states’ behaviour are limited, the Commission has mainly responded with naming-and-shaming as well as political pressure (Stevis-Gridneff & Novak, 2020). But now, the European public eye is on the LGBTQ+ community in Hungary – the protests are a chance for the EU to use the heightened public attention to exert more pressure on Hungary.
Why UEFA’s decision is a chance for LGBTQ+ rights activists
UEFA’s refusal to light up Munich’s stadium was initiated the wave of solidarity with the Hungarian LGBTQ+ community, former German national player Thomas Hitzlsperger commented on the day of the match. It shed a light on the situation of LGBTQ+ people in Hungary and sparked a public discussion about how a country that lacks protections for minorities can be a member of the European Union, which prides itself in shared values, one of which being Human Rights (European Commission). And the reaction to Hungary’s new ban on LGBTQ+ content left no doubt about the institutions’ displeasure. The Commission has launched a legal procedure against Hungary and its president Ursula von der Leyen called the bill a “shame“ (Bayer, 2021). But whether the Commission can keep the momentum going towards real change remains to be seen.
Bayer, L. (2021, June 23): It’s Hungary vs. Everyone after attacks on LGBTQ+ rights. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/its-hungary-vs-everyone-after-attacks-on-lgbtq-rights-euro-2020-viktor-orban/
BBC (2021, June 22): Euro 2020: Uefa declines request to light up Allianz Arena in rainbow colours. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/57566224
Deutsche Welle (2021, February 17): ‘You can count on us’: German footballers join campaign to support gay colleagues. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/you-can-count-on-us-german-footballers-join-campaign-to-support-gay-colleagues/a-56601778
Deutsche Welle (2020, December 17): Hungary asylum policies ‘failed’ to fulfill EU obligations. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/hungary-asylum-policies-failed-to-fulfill-eu-obligations/a-55970205
European Commission. The EU values. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/component-library/eu/about/eu-values/
Erlanger, S. (2021, June 23): A culture war between Hungary and Europe escalates over LGBT bill. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/world/europe/hungary-europe-lgbt-culture-war.html
France24 (2021, June 21): No UEFA action for German ‘keeper Neuer’s rainbow armband at Euro 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210621-no-uefa-action-for-german-keeper-neuer-s-rainbow-armband-at-euro-2020
Gehrke, L. & Walker, L. (2021, June 22): Dismay at UEFA decision to ban rainbow lights at Germany vs. Hungary game. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/uefa-rainbow-ban-munich-stadium-germany-hungary/
Haynes, S. (2020, May 19): Hungary’s Parliament Votes to End Legal Recognition of Transgender People. Activists Fear ‘Devastating’ Consequences. Time. Retrieved from: https://time.com/5838804/hungary-gender-recognition-vote-transgender/
Schnitzler, K. & Stroh, K. (2021, June 23): Wo es in München heute bunt wird. Süddeutsche Zeitung. Retrieved from: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/muenchen/em-muenchen-regenbogen-protest-fragen-antworten-1.5330589
Stevis-Gridneff, M. & Novak, B. (2020, March 31): E.U. tries gentle diplomacy to counter Hungary’s crackdown on democracy. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/12/world/europe/hungary-poland-lgbt-rights-eu.html
Thorpe, N. (2020, October 6): Hungary broke EU law by forcing out university, says European Court. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54433398
Walker, S. (2019, November 16): Classes move to Vienna as Hungary makes rare decision to oust university. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/16/ceu-classes-move-to-vienna-orban-hungary-ousts-university