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17th Nov 2019

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Brussels keen for Berlin to unblock EU anti-discrimination law

  • The rainbow flag: the EU directive is designed to stop, for example, hotels from excluding gay couples (Photo: -Marlith-)

A senior EU official has criticised Germany's opposition to a new pro-diversity law, while speaking at an event which saw IBM crowned the world's most gay-friendly company.

"German businesses - please ask why it's impossible for Germany to support the non-discrimination directive," Belinda Pyke, the head of the European Commission's anti-discrimination department, said to executives at the corporate awards ceremony in Amsterdam on Thursday (10 June).

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"We know it's in the coalition agreement, and of course it's not for me to interfere with that. But it's a shame, because ... people outside Germany can't understand why Germany, which has a strong commitment to diversity, is blocking, and other countries are hiding behind it, the chance to give people outside Germany these rights."

The European Commission in 2008 proposed a law banning service providers, such as hotels, from discriminating against people because of their sexuality or religion. The EU parliament passed the bill in the teeth of opposition - Roman Catholic bishops said it would lead to pagan ceremonies in church halls. But it is stuck at member state level, with no EU vote scheduled for now.

Germany's Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition pact in 2009 specifically goes against the directive, despite the fact that Germany is one of Europe's most open societies: Its foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, is openly gay. Berlin is talked about as Europe's new "gay capital."

Thursday's business awards, set up by the Montreal, Canada-based International Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the Amsterdam-based Company Pride Platform, saw US computer hardware firm IBM named "the most gay-friendly company on the planet." Google came second, followed by BT, Morgan Stanley and Cisco, out of 25 big corporations in the running.

Explaining IBM's thinking, Claudia Woody, the head of the firm's intellectual property unit, said its pro-diversity staff policies, which help talented gay people and women to get ahead, boost competitiveness. "If you have a team made up just quarterbacks and I have team with a quarterback, wide receivers and linebackers, I will win. Every time. Every time," she told EUobserver, using an American Football analogy.

IBM, which employs 400,000 people, has in the past flexed its financial muscle to change rules in conservative countries. It once threatened to pull an investment in Saudi Arabia because authorities had asked to put glass screens in meeting rooms to separate men and women, Ms Woodie said.

It also aims to hold seminars and to put up IBM banners at the EuroPride rally on 17 July in Warsaw, one of Europe's least gay-friendly cities.

Meanwhile, the commission's Ms Pyke said having a gay-friendly brand is an asset in terms of government relations. She said it is a "myth" that EU public procurement decisions do not take into account a company's social credentials: "It [an award, such as the Company Pride gong] does open doors, quite frankly."

Ms Pyke herself attended a pro-gay rally in May in Vilnius, where a crowd of 5,000 or so counter-protesters and onlookers was held back by police. Silvan Agius, an activist with the Brussels branch of the International Gay and Lesbian Association, said that letters sent by the commission to Lithuanian authorities helped overturn a legal ban on the event.

The commission is itself working on a "European Diversity" prize for minority-friendly companies, with the project to kick-off after June 2011, Ms Pyke said.

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