Surrounded by fields of roses and lavender in tranquil eastern Poland, some residents of the village of Konskowola feel the EU might be trying to blackmail them.
Like about 100 other municipalities across rural Poland, the local council has declared Konskowola to be free of “LGBT ideology,” reflecting a backlash against gay rights throughout the conservative, largely Catholic nation.
This has raised eyebrows in Brussels, with the European Commission signaling to regional authorities, including Konskowola, that it might curb EU aid to areas that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Some residents, such as Konskowola Council head Radoslaw Gabriel Barzenc, are angry over what they see as unjustified interference by Europe’s liberal west in the town’s beliefs.
“The restrictions could be implemented because people have an opinion. Isn’t this discrimination? Is this what European tolerance is about? I don’t think so. I cannot imagine we would yield to blackmail,” Barzenc said.
Gay rights have become a hot-button issue in Poland since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power five years ago, pledging to defend traditional family values.
In the run-up to last Sunday’s presidential run-off election, Polish President Andrzej Duda, allied with PiS, pledged to ensure gay couples would not be able to adopt children and to prevent education about gay rights in public schools.
He won a second five-year term with 51 percent of the votes against a liberal challenger, amid mounting polarization in Poland over the role religious values should play in public life.
PiS and Duda have long disagreed with Europe over Warsaw’s adherence to democratic norms, and the issue was on the agenda at an EU summit which started in Brussels on Friday.
Some want to freeze payouts for EU countries said to be undermining democratic values, such as Poland, although Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing ally of Warsaw’s conservative government, has threatened a veto.
On the eve of the summit, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who is gay, expressed outrage.
“If we accept that you condemn a sexual minority, tomorrow it will be religion, the day after it will be race,” he said.
A Polish rights organization has also petitioned the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to investigate whether EU funds disbursed in Poland are being misused by “LGBT-free” communities.
OLAF declined to comment.
In Konskowola, in Poland’s conservative heartland, about 70 percent of residents voted for Duda, a devout Catholic.
“The EU should not withdraw its funds,” said Urszula Nowak, a 76-year-old pensioner who has lived her entire life in the village.
“It would mean the EU was against our faith. The majority of Poles are Christian after all,” Nowak said.
Konskowola authorities say their aim is not to discriminate against any individuals.
In a declaration last year, the council said it opposed any public activity aimed at “promoting the ideology of the LGBT movement,” and declared it would protect its school and its families from anything that would contradict Christian values.
“We will not allow any administrative pressure in support of political correctness, rightfully called ‘homopropaganda,’” the declaration read.
However, dissent in Konskowola, which has a population of just over 2,000, is brewing.
Konskowola Mayor Stanislaw Golebiowski, who is not a member of the local council, says it should have never taken up the issue and should reconsider. He feels too much is at stake.
He wants EU cash to modernize irrigation systems — made more urgent by falling groundwater levels — for the town’s prized rose fields and other flowers it grows.
Like thousands of towns and villages across Poland, which joined the EU in 2004 and has since received about 36 billion euros (US$41 billion) in aid, Konskowola has spent the cash on projects to improve living standards after the ravages of World War II and four decades of communism.
Honorata Sadurska, 26, a bisexual veterinarian from Konskowola, believes homophobia is on the rise.
“It’s happened that I was pushed on the bus or that someone has yelled something not nice to me. Is it because of the council’s declaration,” she said. “I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg.”
However, she opposes funding cuts for Konskowola.
“It will only isolate such places further,” Sadurska said.
Additional reporting by Aleksandra Smigiel, Joanna Plucinska and John Chalmers
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