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Over the rainbow? LGBTI rights in Europe. Between reality and ambition

On 7 June, in the context of the Pride month, our Delegation and the European Parliamentary Association in Strasbourg organised a thematic conference on LGBTI rights in Europe, in partnership with the Permanent Representations of Malta and Luxembourg to the Council of Europe. The event brought together two high-level EU speakers: Ms Stella Ronner, EU Ambassador for Gender and Diversity and Mr Marc Angel, MEP, Co-chair of the European Parliament LGBTI Intergroup, and featured an introductory video address by Ms Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality.

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The conference offered a high-quality discussion on challenges and opportunities in the field of LGBTI rights in Europe from the perspective of different EU institutions. With a diverse audience from the local diplomatic corps, MEPs currently in Strasbourg for the Parliament’s plenary session and the general public, the event aimed at providing concrete responses for the further mainstreaming of LGBTI rights in political decision-making in the EU and in our external relations.

After an introduction by the President of APE, Mr Herbert Dorfmann, the conference featured a video address by Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, in which she reiterated that a true European LGBTIQ freedom zone must allow all persons to pursue their life goals unhampered by stereotypes, structural barriers and the risk of violence. She further stressed that except minimum standards in labour law and a few other areas, there is no real harmonisation on the topic of LGBTI rights across the EU, not least because it mostly rests on the competence of EU Member States.

She pointed out, however, that the Commission’s first-ever LGBTIQ Equality Strategy has provided a new level of ambition for the EU in the field. Furthermore, initiatives such as the recent Digital Services Act, the proposed Equal Treatment Directive, regular good practice exchanges and funding programmes represent concrete steps the EU is making in this direction. Ms Dalli also stressed that the Commission and the Council of Europe are constantly working together and reinforcing each other’s actions.

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Mr Marc Angel (Luxembourg, S&D), MEP, Co-chair of the European Parliament LGBTI Intergroup also made clear that Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ resolutions and European Court of Human Rights judgements remain a major source of inspiration for the Parliament, and the Council of Europe’s role is crucial as it enables to reach beyond the 27 EU Member States.

Ms Stella Ronner, EU Ambassador for Gender and Diversity, further stressed the EU’s ambition to be a frontrunner of LGBTI rights. Strengthening a point raised before by Commissioner Dalli that the EU’s aim is to have one harmonised position both inside and outside the Union, Ms Ronner further stressed that we cannot be credible in promoting LGBTI rights externally if there are still gaps to be addressed within the EU.

Mr Angel noted that there is a high degree of homophobia and transphobia even in the EU and that LGBTI minorities are often used as scapegoats by political actors. It is thus crucial to avoid compromising with anti-LGBTI groups and keep fighting their arguments with the help of the civil society, the free press and academia among others.

Regarding our external relations, Ms Ronner further mentioned that the EEAS is currently working on an action plan to further address issues such as gender hate speech or the criminalisation of same-sex relationships in some parts of the world, and increasingly looking towards civil society organisations and activists to help mainstream LGBTI issues in our foreign policy.

Asked what EU diplomacy can do to uphold LGBTI rights globally, Ms Ronner noted the EU is engaging bilaterally with national governments and multilaterally with international organisations and the civil society and taking concrete steps to promote a discourse based on equality and fight toxic narratives. Some of the recent examples in this regard are the conference on IDAHOBIT day on disinformation targeting LGBTI groups, the existing task force in the EEAS responsible for debunking fake news and disinformation or the work conducted on the ground by EU delegations not least in the context of gay pride parades and other campaigns. In reply to a question from the audience, Ms Ronner further invited lawyers and civil society to reach out to EU Delegations who can bring valuable support in this fight.

In their exchange with the audience both speakers also flagged issues such as adoption rights for LGBTI couples, the fight against AIDS stigmatisation or the question of sex and relationship education in schools where many gaps persist both within the EU and globally. Harmonisation of standards at the level of the 27 is very difficult to achieve as all these issues are of the resort of national governments and appear to depend extensively on slow-paced social and cultural transformations.

In her closing remarks, Ambassador Meglena Kuneva reiterated that it is one of the core missions of the EU and the Council of Europe to protect LGBTI rights as basic human rights. In the context of Russia’s ongoing war on UA, she also pointed out that LGBTI people are especially vulnerable in situations of conflict.

The event also provided a great opportunity to advertise the exhibition “Identities. Aspects of Contemporary Photography in Ukraine” that was launched the following day in Strasbourg by the association Apollonia, European Art Exchanges, with the support of our Delegation and under the high patronage of the European Parliament. Our financial contribution for the design, production and printing of the photo panels of the exhibition has thus taken on additional importance in the circumstances of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, as a political statement of unwavering support for an independent and sovereign Ukraine. As Apollonia is currently running a program of aid and support though artistic projects for the Ukrainian artistic community, this initiative also represents a concrete action towards keeping Ukrainian art and cultural industry afloat.

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