• A protestor in Cairo calls for reforms earlier this year (Photo: Al Jazeera English)

Focus

Reformed EU neighbourhood policy to stress minority rights

10.05.11 @ 17:14

  1. By Andrew Willis

BRUSSELS - An upcoming review of the EU's multi-billion euro neighbourhood policy is expected to feature calls to protect "minority" groups but is unlikely to include specific demands for greater gay rights in north Africa and the Middle East.

Embarrassed by its poor track record of affecting democratic change in the region, home to several dramatic revolutions against autocratic rulers in recent months, the commission had been scheduled to publish plans to overhaul the EU policy on Tuesday (10 May).

A delay now means publication has been set back several weeks, amid reports of internal disagreement over details.

A spokeswoman for EU enlargement and neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele defended the commission's position on gay rights, but said it was still unclear whether a specific reference to the issue would be mentioned in the forthcoming review.

"It is something that we have been vocal on in the past, as vocal as we could," Natasha Butler told this website.

"There are of course calls for greater respect of human rights, but I'm not sure that we are going to list specific victims," she added, stressing that the review had yet to be finalised.

"I expect there will be a lot on civil society and human rights in general, including minority rights."

The lavish spending and poor returns of the EU's neighbourhood policy have come in for particular scrutiny in recent months, with British foreign minister William Hague among those calling for a root-and-branch reform.

Launched in 2004, the policy takes in five former Soviet republics and the swath of Arab states which span the Mediterranean Sea's southern rim, an area where overtly gay behaviour is frequently prohibited and punished by law.

Speaking to EUobserver by telephone on Monday, the secretary general of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Africa said the EU needed to do more to protect gay rights.

"Unfortunately we have reason to believe that these issues are not yet at the forefront of EU discussions with external countries," said Renato Sabbadini. "We still have the impression that European policymakers prefer not to hurt the sensitives of certain strategic countries."

Brussels now had an important opportunity to correct past failures, said Sabbadini.

"We certainly hope calls for greater freedom of expression and other gay rights issues will be included in the commission's proposals ... No one expects these countries to change overnight, but reference in the document could create a climate for change."

Media reports suggest disagreements between commissioner Fuele and EU high representative Catherine Ashton are at the heart of the review's delayed publication, although an EU source said it was merely a question of "fine tuning the language to make it less stuffy".

Speaking to MEPs in early March, the Czech Republic commissioner conceded that Europe "should have backed democrats not dictators" in northern Africa and the Middle East.

A commission proposal a week later said €4 billion in aid already pledged for the southern Mediterranean, to be spent from 2011-13, must be linked to advances in human rights, fighting corruption and judicial reform.