Improving LGBT Rights in times of a conservative reaction
Strengthening the rights of LGBT people was one of the goals and achievements of the Greens in the last European legislature. Not an easy task in this time of conservative reaction. In this interview Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek also addresses the issue of EU enlargement to the Eastern European countries.
GEJ: Ulrike, you have been the rapporteur of the Roadmap against homophobia that was adopted by the European Parliament in February 2014. Why is this report so important?
Ulike Lunacek (UL): In comparison to other continents, in Europe we have already quite good legislation on the rights of LGBT people. 17 Member States have either marriage or partnerships for lesbians, gays and sexual transgender people. There is an anti-discrimination directive in the field of employment. Since I had my own coming out about 30 years ago, there has been a lot of progress.
But in 2013, the Fundamental Rights Agency published a study that showed: almost two-thirds of LGBT people in the EU are afraid to walk hand-in-hand with their loved ones in the street. The study has also documented that around one quarter of these people had experienced some kind of verbal or physical violence and that a certain number of them had been attacked or beaten because of being lesbian or gay.
GEJ: So this study convinced the European Parliament to react?
UL: Yes, ten times previously the European Parliament had asked the European Commission to develop a roadmap and strategy against homophobia and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. But the Commission has always refused to do so, arguing that the victim package which also includes LGBT people was sufficient. That’s why the European Parliament and more precisely its Committee on Civil Liberties decided to produce an initiative report asking the Commission to develop such a roadmap. I was the rapporteur of this report which means that I had the lead in drafting and negotiating it. I was supported with shadows from several groups, including Roberta Metsola from the Conservatives in Malta, a progressive woman herself, and that helped a lot.
GEJ: Can you give us some examples of the recommendations issued in this roadmap?
UL: The roadmap describes clearly the areas where action is needed, and what kind of action can be done. But there is also a very clear clause of subsidiarity on the respective competences of the Commission and of the Member States. On the field of education, the report states that the Commission should facilitate the exchange of best practices in different countries, in order to enhance positive images of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, for example, in schoolbooks. There is also a focus on the education of police forces on the issue of homophobia.
Facing a conservative reaction
GEJ: There was a controversial issue on the rights of married homosexual couples…
UL: Indeed, the roadmap addresses the issue of the rights of married couples who are moving inside the EU, like a lesbian couple married in Spain with children, or a gay couple married in Sweden or Great Britain. If they move to Austria or Slovakia or Poland they should have equal rights according to what marriage or partnership means at home. But this simple recommendation has been abused by many opponents who accuse us of telling Member States that they have to introduce marriage for same sex couples. It is ridiculous. We knew perfectly well that such a demand wouldn’t pass in Parliament, even if I of course would personally go for that. But it’s not in the EU competence.
BL: I heard that you received a lot of negative messages.
UL: Yes, I was really amazed by the amount of emails I got in one week, more than 40,000, most with the same accusations, probably automated, from a website. They were totally false allegations. One of them was that with this report LGBT people would have a veto right at EU level, something never heard of! I got some hate mails that included some threats. My website was hacked four days before the vote. There is a growing community, a mixture of Christian fundamentalists and nationalists, anti-Europeans, right-wing people, who unite on these issues against lesbians and gays, against women’s rights. They are very well organised and have a lot of money.
GEJ: Do you see that throughout Europe? Or just in some countries?
UL: It is happening all over. Most of the mails I got were from Spain, but there is a website that is organising different websites, active in many Member States. And of course in France, the opponents were also very heavily organised after that country’s discussion on same sex marriage. They even called people like a Conservative MEP at home to ask them not to vote in favour of the Report. Nevertheless, there was broad support in the European Parliament. 398 MEPs voted in favour, which was more than I expected, and it was a very good sign that MEPs from the more conservative parties weren’t all influenced by these hate-filled people who don’t really understand what homophobia is about.
GEJ: Ok, so you went through this. What now needs to be done in the future on this level?
UL: Well, this report is not a legislative one, but it is one which clearly asks the Commission to go ahead. What is now important before the election is that candidates for the Parliament and the Commission sign up to the pledge that ILGA Europe is asking the candidates to sign. And after the elections, we will be forming a new LGBT Intergroup with likeminded people in the Parliament. In the hearings for new Commissioners in the Parliament, we will ask the candidates whether they will support that pledge.
GEJ: Are there other issues or aspects of discrimination, against women for example, which you addressed during this legislature?
UL: In the spring of 2010, the Women’s Committee and a majority of the Parliament voted on a legislative act to demand that women who become mothers should have, if they were currently employed, 20 weeks paid leave after the child is born. They also decided that the fathers should have the right to two weeks of paid parental leave, right after birth, together with the mother (the directive would also apply to same sex parents). But the Council – Member States’ governments – are blocking implementation saying this would be far too expensive. I find that really very irresponsible, knowing how important it would be for equal participation of women at the work place fighting against the glass ceiling in careers – and for employers to learn that men also stay at home when they have kids! And for fathers to learn very early to show responsibility for a newborn baby. But yes, we will try again in the next legislative period.
Against the enlargement fatigue
GEJ: Maybe now we can jump to the enlargement issue. I saw your reaction in October after the European Commission published its strategy on enlargement. You were quite critical of it. Can you explain your vision of the continuing enlargement process?
UL: It is true that we can see something like an enlargement fatigue. After the accession of Croatia, there seems to be a lack of will by Member States to have more countries accede to the EU. Of course with all of them, be it Montenegro, Serbia, or Macedonia, or others, it will still take years until they can accede. But what the European Parliament has been saying in all of its reports is that we need to support enlargement because, especially for the Western Balkans countries, it gives them a vision of lasting peace and stability. The horrible wars we had after the falling apart of Yugoslavia should never again happen. We must repeat this precisely at the moment we are experiencing a new threat to peace on the continent, with Russia annexing Crimea and with the unstable situation in Ukraine. The European perspective, for the countries in the Western Balkan countries, is the motor for democratic, economic and social reforms. It is also crucial – we’ve seen this very clearly with Croatia- for working on the past and bringing war criminals to justice. We see the normalisation process between Kosovo and Serbia. It’s not done yet, it still will be difficult, but I know so many young people in all the Western Balkan countries who are so keen on working towards this EU accession and also fighting against corruption and organised crime. They just want to have normal, modern, rule of law based countries. This is the big promise of European accession.
GEJ: This is the vision. But there can also be disappointment if this vision is not realised.
UL: Yes, for sure, there is always disappointment if promises are never totally fulfilled. This is politics. But with Croatia we have seen what the enlargement process has brought. In the end, also the system in Croatia itself has been improved. It’s not perfect yet. But the situation for minorities has been improved. There is also some kind of reconciliation with Serbia. The public awareness and the support for LGBT Pride has improved. But it’s not enough yet. We also have some Member States who are blocking others, like Greece with Macedonia. We – specifically my Dutch colleague Marije Cornelissen – were successful as Greens in the European Parliament with including in the report on Macedonia the proposal to accept a geographical name for the country, be it northern Macedonia or something else, in order to open the process for accession negotiations.
GEJ: How is the current discussion on Bosnia?
UL: This is the country that is of most concern to me. Its constitution simply sticks to ethnic and religious definition of citizens. The people who are outside of that, be they Jewish or atheist or people of mixed ethnic origin, are not allowed to be a part of the state system. 20 years ago, this was something that was good for ending the war, but now this should change. I hope there will be progress in the future on this because currently there is no real will to change that constitution.
GEJ: For the Greens, the Balkans is also a region with important ecological issues.
UL: In Montenegro, there was one project to construct a big hydropower plants on the Moraca river. There is a new party, Pozitivna Montenegro, which is close to the Greens. When their party leader was still active in an NGO we cooperated closely to stop the building of a hydroelectric power plant. But others are being planned. In all those countries it would be necessary to invest more in insulating buildings, to keep people’s energy bills low, in energy efficiency and renewables. These are things that those of us in the Green group in the next Parliament will also be working on.
GEJ: Just to come to the conclusion, is it not unavoidable to have this fatigue on enlargement when you see the discussions on a two-speed Europe gaining more and more importance?
UL: I personally do not like that idea because I’m afraid it will create a kind of centrifugal force, meaning that those who are outside the nucleus will drift away. It could mean that at one time we really have two Europes; the one that is the nucleus, and the other around it, who is getting further and further away. That is not my wish, and I don’t think it should be the Green vision of Europe either. I think we should keep the continent together. Of course, we have to change the way it’s going. There’s still too much neoliberal economics going on. Too little has been done on the social side. But by starting with a Eurozone budget, or a Eurozone Parliament, would make the two parts of Europe drift apart.
GEJ: How do you see the global election context for the Greens? Your colleague, Philippe Lamberts, and others mentioned the risk of a grand coalition in different European countries and also in the European Parliament.
UL: We have already experienced it in the European Parliament with Martin Schulz who wants to become President of the Commission for the Social Democrats. All those who think that Schulz would be a very good President of the Commission, and all those who are hoping for a progressive majority, must know that – since Schulz needs to be nominated by Angela Merkel – we might get a grand coalition, where Social Democrats will be more and more doing deals with the conservative party. So the only answer to get the changes we really want in Europe is to vote Green.
This interview was conducted on March 18th