LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

EU enlargement

What is EU enlargement?

There are currently 28 Member States in the European Union (EU). More countries wish to join – this expansion of the EU is called enlargement. In order to join the EU, the candidate countries must meet certain standards, known as Copenhagen criteria. These are divided into political criteria, economic requirements, and the transposition of EU legislation into national law. This also means that the candidate (also referred to as accession) countries need to adopt anti-discrimination laws which includes sexual orientation.

Why is the EU enlargement process important for LGBTI rights?

The EU enlargement process can affect LGBTI rights significantly. It obliges candidate countries to provide protect LGBTI people from discrimination against LGBTI people. Over time, this process brought with it a gradual shift in how LGBTI issues were framed – now they are viewed as a matter of rights, rather than a question of morality. As a result, most candidate and potential candidate countries have rather advanced legal protection against discrimination and violence.

EU public support for LGBTI rights during the accession process gives a form of  external justification and legitimacy. This helps LGBTI activists in candidate countries to draw public attention to their concerns. It also provides a political platform for  their demands. Activists have witnessed that ‘the doors of state institutions were opening to them’.

With the support of ILGA-Europe, activists have effectively used the EU’s ‘carrot and stick’ policy to achieve important legislative and policy advances in most candidate countries.

However, the impact of the EU enlargement process on public opinion  is less significant.  Moreover, the political influence that the EU has pre-accession often appears to wane substantially after a country makes the transition from candidate to member state. 

How ILGA-Europe is using this process to advance the human rights of LGBTI people?

ILGA-Europe still plays a crucial role. Firstly, we can ensure that EU uses its political leverage to advance the human rights of LGBTI people in candidate countries. Secondly, we also provide LGBTI organisations with the relevant information, knowledge and skills that they need to use the EU enlargement process for their own important advocacy goals.

How does that work in practice?  Well, ILGA-Europe…

  • collect evidence and report to the EU institutions about the human rights situation of LGBTI people in candidate and potential candidate countries
  • build the capacities of national organisations to advocate, both nationally and at EU level
  • contribute to the Progress Reports consultations – these are annual updates on the enlargement process in each country, put together by the European Commission
  • work together with the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights to rally support for Pride events
  • bring activists to Brussels  to raise the concerns of LGBTI people directly with EU decision makers

ILGA-Europe have played and continue to play a role in extending the EU’s protection for LGBTI people in candidate countries even further. As mentioned earlier, EU membership will only be granted if aspiring members adopt the existing body of EU rules and law, known as the acquis. For example, anti-discrimination laws must contain sexual orientation as a ground. Most candidate countries have included sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination due to this process, and some have even extended it to include gender identity as a protected ground too.

What are our achievements so far?

The joint advocacy work with our members has led to concrete achievements:

  • Since 2008, the European Commission has gradually and substantially increased references to LGBTI issues in its annual progress reports. In 2013 and 2014, the Commission made the promotion of LGBTI human rights a priority calling for ‘A zero-tolerance approach to hate speech, violence and intimidation’ together with ‘strong leadership from the authorities to bring about a change in the frequently hostile societal attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people’ in its annual strategies. The European Commission also urged candidate countries ‘to take measures to counter stereotypes and misinformation, including in the education system’ reiterating that ‘religious or cultural values cannot be invoked to justify any form of discrimination’
  •  LGBTI organisations in candidate countries are using the enlargement process to advance the legal and policy situation of LGBTI people in their respective countries. Most countries in the Western Balkans have better legislation in regards to protection of LGBTI people than some EU member states.

That being said, ILGA-Europe and members organisations in the Western Balkans and Turkey still have a lot of work to do. We must ensure that LGBTI issues remain high on the EU enlargement agenda, that greater importance is placed on political leadership and changing public opinion; and that full equality for LGBTI people is provided in reality, not just as part of an EU accession process.