21st Oct 2021

Brussels overlooks gay marriage in new rights bill

  • Same-sex couples have patchy rights across the EU (Photo: Wikipedia)

New European Commission proposals to put an end to discrimination on the basis of age, disability, sexual orientation or creed have been given a lukewarm welcome by civil liberties groups, who say prejudice against same-sex couples who wish to get married is not adequately covered.

The commission unveiled on Wednesday (2 July) a proposal for a directive aiming to ensure equal treatment in public services such as health care, social security and education, when buying products or making use of commercial services. Similar protection already exists against discrimination in the workplace.

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"The right to equal treatment is fundamental, but millions of people in the EU continue to face discrimination in their everyday lives," said employment, social affairs and equal opportunities commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

The move is a victory for campaigners, who had requested that the commission propose a "horizontal" anti-discrimination directive – one that covers all grounds for discrimination.

In May, the commission had announced the proposal would be restricted to preventing discrimination against the disabled – a retreat from earlier announcements that any proposal would also include sexual orientation. The move at the time was widely seen as an attempt not to provoke the ire of those opposed to gay rights ahead of the Irish referendum.

The law will prohibit direct and indirect discrimination as well as harassment and victimisation. For people with disabilities, non-discrimination will involve ensuring accessibility. This may take the form of ensuring there are ramps or elevators in certain locations to enable access for those in wheelchairs.

The proposal would also permit a tenant to sue a landlord for refusing to rent an apartment because she was lesbian or black.

Juris Lavrikovs, of the International Gay and Lesbian Association – Europe, was largely pleased with the document.

"We really appreciate that the proposed directive covers all grounds of discrimination – something we've been working on for months. It's very positive," he told EUobserver.

"We're particularly happy with the inclusion of education in the proposal."

Gay couples overlooked

Nonetheless, his organisation still feels that the door is left open to discrimination against gay and lesbians who wish to get married.

"There is no reference to differential treatment regarding marriage," said Mr Lavrikovs. "This thus maintains unequal treatment of same-sex couples."

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP, whose grouping in the European Parliament welcomed the proposals, also added her voice to those calling for stronger action in the field of marriage. "Discrimination of same-sex couples, married or in registered partnership, needs to end," she said. "All couples should have equal rights and advantages."

Commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnubein said the EU executive has no responsibiltiy for marriage. "The commission does not have competence in this area. Marriage is a competence of the member states. We cannot go beyond this."

"Marriage is not considered a service," she said.

AIDS and HIV campaigners were also disappointed that the bill failed to include any reference to the discrimination faced by people living with HIV.

The UK National AIDS Trust, one of the civil society groups compaigning for the new directive, called on the EU to provide explicit protection from discrimination for people living with HIV.

"Discrimination against people living with HIV is pervasive across the European Union," said Deborah Jack, the chief executive of the group, "in provision of goods and services, employment, healthcare, [and] family rights."

This "remains the number one barrier to an effective public health response to the HIV epidemic in Europe," she added. "By not providing explicit protection for people living with HIV, the European Commission is failing to address the high levels of stigma and discrimination which persist across the EU."

The commission underlined that the directive will have no effect on generally accepted practices such as discounts for senior citizens on such items as bus tickets, entrance to museums or age restrictions that limit access to alcohol for young people.

The proposal aims to create a level playing field across the EU as some countries already have national anti-discrimination protections in place while others do not.

The commission also envisions the development of national "Equality Bodies" to which citizens could take a complaint of discrimination.

Businesses worried

Employers, however, thought the anti-discrimination proposal went too far and that anti-discrimination measures would end up costly for small businesses. "What will be the implications and costs for businesses?" asked Arnaldo Abruzzini, the secretary-general of Eurochambres, the association of European chambers of commerce.

"We ask the commission to carry out assessments of the impact on SMEs of the four other directives against discrimination that it has introduced over last eight years before it goes ahead with this new legislative proposal," he added.

The commission's proposals were announced just a day after the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency issued a report urging the EU to do more to tackle homophobia.

The study noted that in only 18 member states do lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals enjoy significant legal protection.

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