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25th Feb 2017

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Belgium keeping alive EU anti-discrimination bill

The Belgian EU presidency is keeping alive hopes that disabled, gay and old people will in the coming years have equal access to services in the Union's single market.

The bill - dubbed "the fourth anti-discrimination directive" - was originally put forward by the European Commission in 2008 but disappeared into the legal machinery of the EU Council and has stayed off the political agenda for the past two years.

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Asked by EUobserver at a seminar by the German centre-right foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, in Brussels on Tuesday (5 October) if the law will ever see the light of day, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said there is no real progress because of German-led opposition.

"One has to speak to every member state that is blocking the directive. This is first and foremost Germany, but there are lots of other countries hiding behind Germany as well. I am speaking regularly to German ministers. They tell me 'nyet' and that that's it," she said, speaking in German, but using the Russian word for 'No.'

EU diplomatic sources say that the eight-or-so countries "hiding" behind Berlin include the Czech Republic, Italy, Lithuania and Malta.

Each of the five named countries have conservative governments. But the objections are not related to Christian mores on sexual orientation so much as based on fears about extra costs of installing disabled access to buildings and on "legal uncertainty."

A ruling by the European Court of Justice in 2005 that German labour law failed to protect the rights of 56-year-old lawyer Werner Mangold in line with a previous EU law on non-discrimination in the workplace has raised fears that the draft bill on services will spawn additional court rulings along the same lines.

Given the problems, the Belgian EU presidency has limited its ambition on the new directive to submitting a progress report on work done so far to EU social affairs ministers in Brussels on 6 December.

The Belgian team is keeping discussion on the troubled project alive in the meantime. On 21 September, it chaired a meeting of delegates from EU interior ministries on the subject of discrimination in the financial services.

The debate was based on a study by the German firm Civic Consulting, which looked at current practice in banks and insurance firms, focusing on Belgium, Germany, Sweden and the UK. With the exception of one bank and one insurer that had created products designed to comply with Islamic sharia law, companies surveyed by Civic Consulting said "almost universally" that race, religion and sexual orientation "play no part at all in their business."

The EU meeting agreed that there are problems relating to age and disability, however.

"Just because you have one arm, it does not mean that your fire insurance should automatically cost more. The company should have to prove that your underlying medical condition increases the risk and there should be more transparency for the consumer," a contact present at the meeting said.

The European Commission is also investing a lot of resources in protecting its original vision of the services anti-discrimintion law. "The commission comes to these meetings with a football team of legal advisers, each one responsible for a different aspect of the directive. This means the discussion stays at a very technical level rather than a political level," an EU official said.

Belgium has tabled two more working group meetings, on 19 and 21 October, to tackle the "most sensitive" part of the dossier: access to housing.

The housing part of the bill covers issues such as whether hoteliers can deny renting a room to a gay couple. But the sensitivity of the area comes more from the potential cost of installing wheelchair access to all sorts of small establishments across Europe at a time of economic austerity.

Amid the risk that the draft directive will be buried still further, the NGO community is keenly interested in keeping discussion going. Prospects for the bill will feature at a discussion by Swedish and Dutch government officials at the annual conference of the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) in The Hague on 28 October.

Hungary is not one of the countries blocking the law. But when asked by this website if the directive will feature in the work programme of the upcoming Hungarian EU presidency, Budapest's new ambassador to the EU, Peter Gyorkos, was unable to give a firm commitment. "It is too early to say," the diplomat said.

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