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V4 “Family Declaration” seen as vehicle for social conservative drive in EU

V4 Traditional Families Story

It looks like a benign, if rather anodyne, document expressing support for families. But the “Declaration Pro Familia” signed by Central European governments in May could be used to push an ultra-conservative agenda at the EU level.

“We underline that the family is the primal community – it was the first to develop in the history of mankind, before the first states were formed. From the dawn of humanity until today, it is a community through which the social tissue is recreated,” reads the text of the Declaration Pro Familia, signed on May 13 in Warsaw by ministers responsible for family affairs of the four Visegrad states – Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

“It is families that provide society with the greatest gift: its new members. So far, no better environment for the growth of children has been developed… Therefore, we are committed to supporting the family – mankind’s fundamental idea,” continues the one-page text, an initiative of the rotating Polish presidency of the Visegrad Group, the text of which was provided to BIRN by the Polish Ministry of Family and Social Policy.

“We declare the taking of all possible measures – including those to be undertaken in cooperation with the Visegrad Group – in order to provide families with the best possible conditions for functioning,” it concludes.

While the focus of the communication around the launch of the Declaration Pro Familia has been on fairly uncontroversial government actions, the V4 countries’ plan to improve exclusively the economic situation of heterosexual families, primarily those with multiple children, and the fact the text is the initiative of Poland’s nationalist-populist government, which has been carrying out a concerted campaign against women’s and LGBT rights, raises many questions.

Do all V4 countries that signed the Declaration Pro Familia share the current Polish government’s understanding of family, i.e. the ‘traditional’ family of a married heterosexual couple and their children? Will the Declaration lead to other joint actions by the V4 to restrict women’s and LGBT rights, as Poland might intend? And what will be the long-term impact of such coordination on wider EU polic-making in the areas of reproductive and gay rights?

Family mainstreaming

During the May 13 launch event in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spelled out at least his government’s intentions on the further use of this initiative.

“We put enormous effort into further ensuring that the basic needs of families are met – in the budget, but also in regulations and policies, national and European. We want to promote the family within the EU – this is for us one of the basic goals of our social policy at the EU level,” he told reporters.

Elzbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist and gender issues expert working at the Sodertorn and Warsaw Universities, said Poland’s social and religious conservatives are attempting to swap “gender mainstreaming” – a strategy to achieve equality between women and men through policies, programs and projects – with “family mainstreaming”, which in the hands of illiberal governments becomes an alternative to women’s rights and a tool for promoting ‘traditional’ values.

“It’s both an ideological and a political project to form a transnational alliance of right-wing populist and extreme-right parties with the help of ultraconservative civil society groups and religious institutions,” Korolczuk tells BIRN.

Over the last year, Poland’s government – a three-party conservative coalition led by Law and Justice (PiS) – has repeatedly requested the excising of the word “gender” from EU documents. At the same time, it has pushed countries in Central and Southeast Europe to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on combating domestic violence and violence against women, in order to replace it with an alternative treaty that would ban abortion and homosexual marriage.

At home, the government has practically banned abortion and supported municipal resolutions passed against “LGBT ideology”, which were widely criticised internationally. It’s all part of a worldview which claims that international bodies and supranational law are forcing countries into accepting modern ‘human rights’ at the expense of the traditional, Christian-centred family model – a process which needs to be reversed.

Pushed by ultra-conservative groups from both inside and outside the government, the Polish proposals have oftentimes proved too reactionary for other countries in the region: the call to reject the Istanbul Convention has been met with a meek response from many neighbouring states.

Against this background, “promoting the family” could turn out to be a much more digestible concept.

Welfare chauvinism

Support for families has been a hallmark of illiberal governments in both Hungary and Poland for years. Pro-family policies are not only popular with voters, but they also match conservative social and religious agendas, with leaders explicitly saying they want to deal with the demographic crisis by raising domestic birth rates rather than encouraging migration.

Since 2010, the Viktor Orban governments in Hungary has introduced multiple financial and tax incentives to encourage couples to have kids. Married couples can get up to 10 million forints (30,000 euros) in benefits if they produce three children within ten years. Working mothers with four children are exempt from personal income tax and families can even get taxpayer-funded assistance for purchasing a new car. A recent measure gave away 3 million forints (8,500 euros) to each family with at least one child to finance housing repairs and another 3 million forints in cheap loans.

The Hungarian government spends a generous 4% of GDP on family assistance, albeit targeting mostly working families rather than those in marginalised communities like Roma. Nevertheless, it can now brag about having raised the birth rate from 1.23 per woman in 2010 to 1.55 today.

Like Warsaw, Budapest bases these policies on a very restrictive – hence discriminatory – definition of family. In May 2020, in the middle of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungary’s parliament passed a bill that banned transgender people from changing their gender in official documents. Then in December, under the coronavirus state of emergency, it passed another bill that made adoption for same-sex couples practically impossible. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Hungary, but couples had been able to adopt if one of them applied as a single partner. Single people will now need special approval from the minister of family affairs to do so.

Experts like Katalin Kevehazi, president of the Budapest-based JOL-LET (Well-Being) Foundation and a prominent expert on women in the labour market, argue that the support for traditional families has a political dimension beyond fertility rates. “In general, all V4 governments have a very conservative approach toward women, seeing their central role as mothers and child-bearers,” Kevehazi told BIRN in an earlier interview.

“But in Hungary, the government and the prime minister himself go a step further and talk about ‘saving the nation and family’ and ‘preserving the Hungarian nation for the future’. It’s not only a family support program, but part of a ‘nation-building’ agenda,” she said.

Hungary’s Ministry of Family Affairs did not respond to BIRN’s questions concerning the Declaration Pro Familia, though Family Minister Katalin Novak, a star of the international anti-gender equality movement, proudly announced her endorsement of the document on social media.

“The Visegrad Group is setting an example to Europe in terms of demography and demonstrates that working solutions can be based on internal resources. A lot of inspiration and great ideas can be found in the group, for example Poland inspired us to introduce a personal income tax exemption for young adults,” she tweeted.

In Poland, PiS came to power in 2015 with an irresistible offer to voters: a monthly benefit of 500 zloty (over 100 euros) per child to families with kids. Just days after the Declaration Pro Familia was signed, the government on May 15 launched a new package dubbed the “Polish Deal”, which included further financial help for families with children, who are set to get over 2,600 euros for the care of their second child between the first and third year of life. PiS also promised guarantees for mortgages and freeing house construction from bureaucratic burdens.

Scholar Elzbieta Korolczuk calls this “welfare chauvinism” and argues that, combined with what could be called a “cautious, ultra-conservative agenda”, it is becoming a popular model not just in Central Europe, but elsewhere in places like Italy and Sweden.

Korolczuk says this is exactly the effect Poland is looking to achieve as it casts about for allies in Western Europe in its attempt “to mainstream the conservative agenda in a package with welfare chauvinism across the EU”.

The increasing popularity of this model can already be seen in Slovakia, the third signatory to the Declaration Pro Familia. In early May, the former prime minister and current finance minister, Igor Matovic, announced during a press conference that Slovakia is aiming to become the “European leader in pro-family policies” by raising support and tax allowances for families with children. Politicians in the ruling coalition have since been competing to outdo each other in pro-family policies.

In a response sent to BIRN about the implications of the Declaration Pro Familia, the Slovak Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family said, “the government views family support as a priority tool to solve the problem of unfavourable economic development”. As such, the government would soon announce a national strategy for families, including support for housing, direct transfers to families and “building a new model of family politics that requires measured investments in the family”, it said.

Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family Milan Krajniak, whose signature is on the Declaration Pro Familia, is a notorious populist conservative Christian, representing the Sme Rodina (We Are Family) party. As a minister, he has been busy erasing the term “gender equality” from legislation and strategic documents. Feminist groups have not received any funding from his ministry, even though many achieved top expert rating.

In April, Krajniak was a keynote speaker at an online conference on the Geneva Consensus Declaration, a global anti-abortion initiative of Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State. Organised by high-profile Polish ultra-conservative legal group Ordo Iuris, which is behind many of the Polish government’s proposals to restrict women’s and LGBT rights, the conference gathered politicians and activists from across the world to discuss how to fight back against what it calls “gender ideology”.

In his speech, Krajniak said that Central Europe was thankful to the West for freeing it of communism and now it was the responsibility of Central Europe “to save the West from liberalism”.

The minister added that it should be the region’s “moral commitment” to “remind Western Europe that boundless liberalism, individualism, and the destruction of social cohesion and bonds, such as the family, will lead to catastrophe.”

A regional outlier

Czechia is the only one of the V4 to be clearly moving in a different direction on women’s and LGBT rights – even if it still has plenty of progress to make. Hence, its participation in the Declaration Pro Familia is all the more surprising.

In response to an inquiry from BIRN, the Czech Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs said it made it clear to the Polish V4 presidency that it does “not in the least” share its views on the “traditional family” model, LGBT rights, gender issues or reproductive rights.

“The underlying principle is to allow for families to choose to have children if they want,” the ministry told BIRN. “We addressed obstacles such as lack of childcare facilities, flexible working arrangements and improved financial security. The governments of Poland and Hungary seem to approach the family rather from the point of demographic developments (i.e. their goal is to increase the fertility rate), while we emphasise the freedom of choice.”

Of late, the Czech government has become increasingly vocal in expressing support for gender and sexual minority rights, even if concrete legal advances – such as the ratification of the Istanbul Convention – are slower to be implemented. It’s a stance that LGBT rights campaigners link to Prague’s stronger orientation towards liberal democracy and a pro-Western stance.

“The Czech Republic clearly opposes any discrimination on the basis of different sexual orientation or gender identity,” Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek wrote on Twitter on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Considering the government’s populist outlook, such outspoken support is also likely the result of a lack of active discrimination among the population, which stems to a degree from a distinct lack of religious fervour. A 2018 survey conducted by the Czech Ombudswoman and the Prague Pride Association found that although discrimination still exists, members of the Czech LGBT+ community generally “assess their position in society rather positively”.

Campaigners are now pushing to exploit the relative tolerance. Claiming that nearly 70% of Czechs support the legalisation of gay marriage, they celebrated in April as a bill to open the way to marriage equality passed a first reading in Parliament. That said, it was only just. There are still powerful reactionary forces in the Czech Republic, led by populist President Milos Zeman.

Czechia has also shown it’s ready to confront its more conservative neighbours. Recently, having banned practically all forms of abortion at the start of the year, Poland called on Prague to stop Polish women accessing such services in Czechia. It received short shrift.

Prague’s decision to join the Coalition Pro Familia looks a little odd, therefore, although the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs insists that the V4 have much to learn from each other and that “cooperation is to be focused on the practical side of family policies”.

“The discussion has focused on non-controversial issues: pro-family measures, demographics and policies regarding the elderly,” the ministry spokesperson told BIRN. “We do not expect issues [such as LGBT, reproductive rights and gender] to be opened, but if they are, we are going to voice the difference in our views.”

Minister Jana Malacova, who signed the declaration on behalf of the Czech government, “expressed her views on the developments of Polish law and policies with regard to reproductive rights last year,” the spokesperson noted. Malacova had described efforts to deprive Polish women of their right to decide on the future of pregnancies as a “return to the Middle Ages”.

The Czech position notwithstanding, Poland has stated that it, at least, will try to use the Declaration Pro Familia to pursue its interests at the EU level.

“Within the European Union, family policy is under the competence of member states – the EU has no competences in shaping or designing the national family policy,” a spokesperson for the Polish Ministry of Family and Social Policy told BIRN. “However, this is the area where the member states can exchange experiences, good practices and share opinions.”

“V4 countries share the opinion that it is the duty of the state to strengthen families, in full trust and respect for its subjectivity. These values – as well as its dignity and respect for freedom – are the foundations on which we base the pro-family policy. We would like to promote this view of the family and value of the family, also in discussions with other member states,” the spokesperson said.

However, Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and an expert in the global ultra-conservative movement, told BIRN that, upon reading the text of the declaration, he has worries about its eventual use within the EU.

“It seems like at least three of the four ministers/countries are using this Declaration to lay the foundation to advance their regressive agenda within the EU in the medium term,” he said. “Poland’s diplomatic efforts to have other countries exit the Istanbul Convention together didn’t work, and Hungary has been leading soft diplomatic efforts on ‘demography’ for a couple of years.”

“Therefore, it looks like the beginnings of an effort to re-package an ultra-conservative agenda into something that looks more innocuous – i.e., ‘the family’ – to then enter into policy discussions into a range of areas. It seems that such an approach would have the full backing of Hungary and Poland, while I’m not sure about Slovakia or whether this is a personal ambition of the minister [Krajniak].”

Perhaps a sign of things to come is that on the same day the Declaration was signed by the V4 countries, the ultra-conservative Polish institute Ordo Iuris – together with partner organisations from across Europe – launched an international petition against the European Commission’s plans to have member states recognise adoptions by LGBT couples contracted in other EU countries.

By Claudia Ciobanu, Tim Gosling, Edit Inotai and Edward Szekeres, originally published by Reporting Democracy (BIRN), an official partner of Kafkadesk.

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