During LGBT history month, it’s important to remember the battles that have been won so far, and move forward to those we have still to fight. In a variety of areas, the EU has been pushing for action in Eastern European countries, and countries hoping to join the EU, to ensure that LGBTI people can be open about their identities without fear of persecution or harm.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can sit back and congratulate ourselves here in the EU, and that problems only exist outside. In 2008 the European Commission – the equivalent of the EU’s ‘civil service’- published a directive on equal treatment regardless of belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Eight years later that directive is still being blocked by countries that are already within the EU, who continue to fight against equal rights. Even now, five countries within the EU, shamefully, do not have laws banning hate crimes against LGBTI people.
Last December, Poland and Hungary blocked a proposal that would have simplified legal procedures for same-sex couples living or working in another Member State in the event of divorce or death. And often, couples in registered partnerships or marriage find that they are not offered the same protections as heterosexual married couples when they exercise their right to freedom of movement across borders.
All countries within the EU have to recognise that rights for LGBTI people are fundamental and non-negotiable. And when new countries express an interest in joining the EU, LGBTI rights have to be at the centre of the EU’s negotiating agenda.
I am the Chair of the Delegation to the former Yugoslav country of Montenegro in the European Parliament. Last December the third ‘Montenegro Pride’ was held successfully and without violent attacks, something that would not have been possible even a couple of years ago. It was held with the full support of the EU’s team in Montenegro and under pressure from the European Parliament to ensure a peaceful Pride event. This pressure has yielded significant results. When Montenegro held its first Pride in 2013, the relatively small number of participants- 150 people- had to be guarded by 2000 police officers and anti-LGBTI extremists threw stones at the march. Last year’s Pride felt like it could have taken place in a different country, given the improved atmosphere.
However, the picture is not entirely rosy. While the Pride in the capital Podgorica went ahead successfully last year, the Pride in the town of Nikšić was banned by the police three times quoting "security grounds". Given that I have attended a heavy metal festival in Nikšić, sponsored by a brewery, which the police apparently were happy with, I cannot understand why a peaceful march should be banned. I hope that the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Ðukanović, will respond soon to my letter criticising this decision.
Of course, a Pride march is just one day when LGBTI people should be protected, and discrimination under the radar is likely to be much more widespread and insidious. Although there are comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in place in Montenegro, a recent survey about the situation of LGBT people at the work place showed that 80% of respondents stated that this does not change things in practice and more enforcement is needed.
Britain’s membership of the EU – a community of 500 million people- means that we can pile the pressure on to countries like Montenegro to protect LGBTI people experiencing discrimination, wherever they are.
Each new vote that passes in the European Parliament is another voice from the people of Europe for more equality. By working with our new and future European partners we can build a society where people are accepted and safe regardless of who they are or who they love.