Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Opinion

Why doesn't the EU do more to protect gay rights?

  • Conchita Wurst, a trans-gender singer, in front of the EU parliament last year (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Numbers. Percentages. Figures.

From the widely unpredictable UK general election result and its now infamous exit poll to the sobering reflections across Europe marking the end of WWII - the past week has been full of surprising numbers.

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In Montenegro last weekend, as part of the European IDAHOT Forum 2015, I launched ILGA-Europe’s new Rainbow Europe package. Our very own annual collection of facts and figures, wich summarises the legal and policy situation for LGBTI people in Europe.

I cannot possibly list all the headlines here; the detailed country information is now available on www.rainbow-europe.org. However, one number has stuck in my mind over the past few days: 52 percent.

On our annual Rainbow Map, we rank 49 countries on a sliding scale ranging from full equality (100%) to gross violations of human rights (0%). The European Union only scores 52 percent.

The union, whose core values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, barely registers above 50%. Why is that? Why is the EU, formally a leading light for equality, languishing behind so many of its composite members?

I find myself struggling to answer that question.

Historically, the EU has been the driver of many advances for LGBTI equality. The evolution comes from the Treaty of Amsterdam’s anti-discrimination protection on the ground of sexual orientation to the equality mainstreaming required as part of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union is very encouraging.

EU court cases such as P. v. S and Cornwall County Council were instrumental in safeguarding people from unfair treatment because of their gender identity.

From 2009-2014, the European Parliament has adopted 115 reports or resolutions which referred to sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBT people who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity can now claim asylum everywhere in Europe because of the EU - the EU has a proud tradition of standing up for the human rights of LGBTI people.

Recent shift

In recent years, there has been a perceptible shift away from EU-instigated change. Now national governments have taken up the mantle and started to implement legislation to safeguard against discrimination.

Don’t get me wrong, we are not complaining about that.

Moves to strengthen protection for LGBTI people across Europe are obviously very welcome. Progressive laws initiated by proactive national governments are great news for the LGBTI people living in those countries.

But all of this comes with a huge proviso. The advances made at national level should not be happening in a vacuum. The fact that regional change is occurring does not mean that the institutions can become complacent.

By having the member states fill the legislative gap, the EU runs the risk of creating a two tier system of protection for LGBTI people within its borders.

The EU cannot abdicate its responsibility to push for greater equality simply because member states are taking more initiative. Once a juggernaut for equality improvement through equal treatment directives, the EU has seemingly ground to a halt.

This critique is not coming from a position of bitterness or scepticism.

Quite the opposite: As head of a European equality organisation who has lived in Brussels for years, I have a personal belief in the potential of the European Union as well as a professional interest in it.

The LGBTI community are long-time supporters of the European project too, as they have witnessed its transformative power first hand.

This is why our trepidation is so concerning and telling. If the support of staunch constituencies, such as the LGBTI community, is wavering, where does that leave the EU?

Not naive

We are not naive or overly idealistic either. ILGA-Europe and our member organisations are well aware of the limits of EU powers.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the EU infringe on the principle of subsidiarity. But we have to stop wringing our hands and imagining that the EU institutions are powerless. Making people’s lives better and protecting the vulnerable is not beyond their imagination. They have done it before and they can do it again.

Interested friends and journalists often ask me about the marriage equality debates going on all over the continent, wondering why the EU isn’t doing more to encourage full civil marriage rights.

This discussion neatly encapsulates what we mean about the EU’s unmet potential. The European Union does not have competency to legislate directly on family related issues, so naturally decisions about who can get married will continue to be defined by member states on an individual basis.

But the EU does have the power to protect LGBTI children from bullying in schools.

The EU does have the ability to guard LGBTI people against hate crime and hate speech.

The EU can ensure that families from member states which recognise them are not deprived of their civil status when entering another member state with no such recognition.

The EU does have the potential to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation when accessing goods and services.

Sadly, the European Union is simply not doing this.

Why not?

The real question we are left with is “why not?”.

Just as we expect national governments to exercise the leadership required to progress on our Rainbow Map from year to year, we expect EU institutions to do the same.

We know what needs to happen, what actions make a difference for LGBTI people, and in fact for the benefit of everyone in our societies. Change is possible and doesn’t need to take generations. We have no excuses anymore.

Evelyne Paradis is director of ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based NGO which promotes human rights for LGBTI people

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