KONSKOWOLA, Poland (Reuters) - Surrounded by fields of roses and lavender in tranquil eastern Poland, some residents of the village of Konskowola feel the European Union may be trying to blackmail them.
Like about a hundred 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 signalling to regional authorities, including Konskowola, that it may curb EU aid to areas that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Some residents, such as Radoslaw Gabriel Barzenc, the Konskowola council head, 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,” he told Reuters.
“I cannot imagine we would yield to blackmail.”
Gay rights have become a hot-button issue in Poland since the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power five years ago pledging to defend traditional family values.
In the run-up to last Sunday’s presidential election, the incumbent 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 a margin of 51% against a liberal challenger, amid mounting polarisation 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 a European Union 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, Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s gay prime minister, expressed outrage.
“If we accept that you condemn a sexual minority, tomorrow it will be religion, the day after it will be race,” he told Reuters.
A Polish rights organisation 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, some 70% 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.”
Konskowola authorities say their aim is not to discriminate against any individuals.
In a 2019 declaration, 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.
But dissent in Konskowola, which has a population of just over 2,000, is brewing.
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 modernise irrigation systems - made more urgent by falling groundwater levels - for the town’s prize 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 some 36 billion euros ($41 billion) in aid, Konskowola has spent the cash on projects to improve living standards after the ravages of World War Two 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 told Reuters. “I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg.”
But she opposes funding cuts for Konskowola. “It will only isolate such places further.”
Additional reporting by Aleksandra Smigiel and Joanna Plucinska; Additional reporting by John Chalmers; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Giles Elgood