22nd Mar 2023


It's far past time for Europe to prioritise LGBTIQ rights

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An abhorrent attack at an LGBTIQ establishment in Bratislava saw two people gunned down on Wednesday (12 October).

Prior to the shooting, the perpetrator, a 19-year-old white man, released an anti-Semitic and homophobic manifesto espousing neo-Nazi beliefs. Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová called it a violent act of hatred and denounced politicians fanning the flames.

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The attack should serve as a major gut check on Europe's (lack of) progress with respect to LGBTIQ rights. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that the Union is "founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity". Yet if LGBTIQ inclusion is any barometer to go by, then the bloc has woefully failed to advance and live up to its core principles.

Across Europe, far-right and populist politicians routinely deploy homophobic and transphobic language generally with impunity. ILGA-Europe's annual reports over the past several years have found a "staggering rise" in anti-LGBTI rhetoric that has fuelled appalling hate crimes throughout the continent. The dissemination of toxic and divisive rhetoric has become more commonplace even in countries, like Finland, Portugal and Spain, broadly deemed to be LGBT-friendly.

The consequences of this hardened rhetoric have been regrettably borne by the LGBTIQ community. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 43% of LGBT people reported they had personally faced discrimination in 2019 compared to 37% in 2012.

EU governments (don't) play their part

There are a multitude of explanations for the rise in hate speech and violence: Government officials, facing pressure due to the pandemic and economic problems, have sought to redirect the public spotlight and ire by using the LGBTIQ community, among other minorities, as a scapegoat.

Russian disinformation campaigns have also increasingly targeted the group by, for example, peddling the false assertion that the West is facing its demise because of its support for equality.

Conservative-nationalists in Poland regularly deride the so-called "LGBT ideology".

Hungary, meanwhile, banned trans people from legally changing their gender and prohibited LGBT content in schools and television programmes for under-18s.

Pride events, furthermore, have been targeted and/or banned by authorities in Romania.

And numerous EU countries, like Italy and Poland, still lack legal protections against hate crimes based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The Italian Parliament just last year scuttled a bill that aimed to criminalise violence and hate speech targeted at LGBTIQ individuals.

The far-right Brothers of Italy and the League, which are expected to form a new governing coalition in Italy, both opposed the legislation. The presumed next Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has further expressed her opposition to surrogacy and adoption by gay couples.

As of 2022, only 14 EU countries permit same sex marriage. Some member states, like Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia, still additionally restrict civil unions.

Far past time for Europe to prioritise LGBTIQ rights

The EU, on paper at least, has laid out a modestly aspirational agenda through the European Commission's LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025. The strategy seeks to ensure that "all people can be themselves without risk of discrimination, exclusion or violence". Specific measures include adding hate crimes motivated by homophobia to the list of such crimes in the EU and advancing legislation ensuring the mutual recognition of same sex parenthood in cross-border situations.

Yet this agenda will remain a mere pipe dream unless and until Europe resolutely stands firm behind LGBTIQ rights. The parenthood proposal, for example, will require unanimity currently absent due to Hungarian and Polish objections.

If the EU is to forge ahead on even the bare minimum — universal hate crimes legislation — it will need to press its case and tie the delivery of bloc funds to the fulfilment of equality standards. Though the EU devised a conditionality mechanism in 2020, the tool only applies to rule-of-law concerns affecting the Union's financial interests and budget. The current Commission battle with Hungary, which may see the EU suspend up to €7.5 billion in funds to the country, primarily pertains to curbing corruption and the misuse of EU funds.

To ensure LGBTIQ rights remain a cornerstone to the EU, these rights, including marriage equality, should also be prioritised as part of accession negotiations with candidate countries.

The courts may provide an additional route to equality. The latest EU country (and the first in Central and Eastern Europe) to permit same sex marriage — Slovenia — only did so following a ruling by its constitutional court. And a Polish appeals court scrapped "LGBT-free zones" designations adopted by four municipalities.

Outside the EU, the US also instituted marriage equality through a court ruling in 2015 and subsequently saw a rapid shift of public opinion in favour of these rights. The ECJ, meanwhile, delivered a victory for LGBTIQ rights in 2018 by declaring that all EU countries must respect the residency and free movement rights of same sex spouses regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

The EU Commission, to this end, is now taking legal action at the ECJ against Hungary for its failure to comply with EU law as it pertains to LGBTIQ rights. A sweeping ruling could see the court broadly interpret Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as comprehensively granting LGBTIQ rights.

Numerous discriminatory laws could fall in subsequent legal challenges. A more modest ruling, meanwhile, would witness the ECJ rule on narrow grounds concerning internal market rules and cross-border implications. A decision in favour of Hungary, by contrast, would open the floodgates to discriminatory legislation.

LGBTIQ rights have generally been side-lined in the past in the EU — the Union has perhaps pursued a strategy of patience in the hopes that time and integration would be allies. However, the recent rise of divisive rhetoric, including hate speech, and violence directed at the LGBTIQ community suggests any such calculation was wrong.

The attack in Bratislava must awaken the EU to the risks of doing nothing and steer it instead towards unequivocally combating disinformation and hate and promoting equality for all.

Author bio

Shane Markowitz is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University and an associate fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava where he conducts research on the future of Europe.


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

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