Monday

17th Jan 2022

Opinion

Three ways to unlock the EU anti-discrimination bill

  • The draft legislation is meant to level up protection on all grounds of discrimination to all areas of life, including education, health, and access to goods and services (Photo: Janis Zakis)

Let’s not beat around the bush: 490 million Europeans are potentially at risk of discrimination on the ground of their sex, their age, their race, their sexual orientation, their religion or belief or their disability and all the possible intersectionalities you could think of.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, had vowed to reduce the skyrocketing democratic gap between EU institutions and citizens (57% abstention rate at the last European Parliament elections) by making fundamental rights a reality in their everyday life.

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This promise is to be translated among others by the adoption of the much delayed equal treatment directive.

This draft legislation is meant to level up the protection on all grounds of discrimination to all areas of life, including education, health, and access to goods and services.

Launched more than six years ago, the commission’s proposal, which requires unanimity to be adopted, has faced blocking or delaying tactics from at least 15 member states.

The reasons range from sheer misunderstanding of what equality legislation is all about, to genuine questions about subsidiarity, to ideological issues about freedom of religion or sexual orientation, or a stiffness without apparent rationale from the German government under the first term of office of chancellor Angela Merkel.

Indeed, this government had sealed its complete refusal of the proposal in its government coalition agreement – a previously unseen move for such European matters.

Though the Merkel II government rests on a slightly more balanced coalition and opposition to this directive is no longer part of its agreement, no substantial change to its position with regard to the proposed equal treatment directive has occurred so far.

But change has been happening elsewhere.

Thanks to the efforts of most of the Presidencies of the EU over the last six years, oppositions have been lifted one by one.

The outgoing Italian presidency of the EU has decided to dedicate considerable resources to striving to strike a deal, contributing to making Juncker’s promise a reality.

The last meeting of the EU employment and social affairs ministers on 11 December was encouraging in this respect, as there was considerable support to continue the work in order to reach a unanimous agreement.

According to the latest news, all countries have lifted their oppositions and reservations – except for Germany. It remains a mystery as to why.

How can a country whose inhabitants benefit from protections against discrimination that are substantially higher than the minimum standards set forth in the new EU directive reasonably block other countries from improving their legal standards?

Would inequality be acceptable for non-Germans and for German citizens when they travel abroad?

It is time that German citizens, but also other EU member states, hold Germany accountable for preventing most EU inhabitants, including Germans when travelling or living abroad, from enjoying their fundamental right to equality.

Three options

In the current situation, we have three options to move forward and make real progress towards equality in the EU. They are listed below, starting with the most preferable option:

Firstly, increase pressure on Germany directly, as well as on other member states, European and national parliaments, to get Germany to lift its opposition to the commission proposal, and have it adopted quickly.

Second: In case Germany should maintain its opposition, it could abstain when the proposal is put to vote in the EU Council, which would not be in breach of the unanimity rule, while not stopping other member states from moving forward and improving their equality standards. Germany would not be giving a great signal on how it values fundamental rights, but at least the whole EU would make a step forward.

Finally, the solution currently put forward by the Italian presidency of the EU: reinforced co-operation between member states deciding to move ahead without any binding framework. While we acknowledge this potential solution as a creative attempt to get out of the current stalemate, we see it as an “open bar” for member states to go cherry picking in matters of equality and fundamental rights.

This solution would not guarantee any improvement to the current situation, and would also delay any attempt to adopt stronger equality legislation for at least the next couple of decades to come.

Germany and other European decision-makers need to come back to reality. Austerity is hitting a growing number of Europe’s inhabitants, without any solution in sight for sustainable improvement in the coming five to 10 years.

Adding widespread discrimination to social and economic declassing is just not viable and seriously endangers any prospect of sound recovery for the EU.

Fundamental rights, including the Equal Treatment legislation, are not a privilege for well-off societies, but a core element of the European social fabric, which makes our societies distinctive, resilient, inclusive and able to move more efficiently through crises.

Failing to implement social justice, economic redistribution and effective fundamental rights is the best recipe for disaster.

If Juncker fails to convince Merkel and her government to understand that connection, we can safely predict that Europeans’ disenchantment with the EU will further deepen. It's time to act.

Michael Privot, director of the European Network Against Racism, and Allan Pall, secretary general of the European Youth Forum

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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