The fight for EU discrimination directive has barely begun

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The announcement last month that the European Commission is to introduce a new directive on discrimination was warmly welcomed by gay rights advocates.

In April it had looked like opposition from Germany and other member states would mean that European Union citizens would only be protected from discrimination on the grounds of disability.

However last month the Commission had a change of heart and widened the scope of the directive to include age, religion and sexual orientation.

Brussels sources told that strong arguments in favour of a wider-ranging directive were pressed by Peter Mandelson, the British EU Commissioner who is one of the few out gay men at the top of Euro politics.

He was supported by Vice-President of the Commission Margot Wallström.

There was praise for the decision from MEPs, gay groups and unions.

Michael Cashman, President of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on gay and lesbian rights, congratulated the Commission for “doing the right thing” and working “to achieve our goal of making Europe a brighter, fairer, equal place to work and to live.”

“We really appreciate that the proposed directive covers all grounds of discrimination – something we’ve been working on for months,” a spokesman for the International Gay and Lesbian Association said.

“Stonewall welcomes the proposed anti-discrimination directive and the fact that it will include sexual orientation,” the gay equality group said in a statement.

“We are concerned that any exemptions may risk the protections it will provide.

“We have raised this directly with key players, including the Prime Minister.”

European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Gerneal Secretary John Monks said:

“This would give a strong message to the member states of the EU and their citizens that we cannot build a modern and cohesive society on discrimination.”

The commission has adopted a proposal for a directive which provides for protection from discrimination on grounds of age, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief beyond the workplace.

But we are some way from seeing that directive become law across all 27 member states.

“I don’t think that we are getting any of this implemented any time soon,” one European Parliament source told

EU directives are legislation that requires member states to, for example, deal with discrimination, but leaves it up to the states to decide on the best course of action to take.

There is at present no EU law protecting LGB people from discrimination in areas such as goods and services which exist for race and gender.

All forms of discrimination at work are already covered by directives.

The directive will cover direct and indirect discrimination as well as harassment and victimisation.

However, member states will remain free to “maintain measures ensuring the secular nature of the State or concerning the status and activities of religious organisations.”

There is already concern that education has been given a “vertical” opt out from the horizontal discrimination directive.

“Horizontal applies across all areas, vertical means one policy area,” explained our EP source.

“So the proposal is to have a vertical exemption for education, and the reason that’s been given is things like special needs schools, faith schools – ‘it’s a bit complex then let’s leave education out’ seems to be the approach taken.”

Now that the Commission has proposed a directive across all strands does not mean the directive will emerge at the other end of the process intact.

“The 27 member states will argue for their bits of exemption, followed by all the different industry lobbies, not to mention groups like the Roman Catholic Church, which has full time lobbyists in Brussels. Then there are the trades union people – it all gets fought through.

“Then member states have the derogations, where they say ‘OK you can put it in but it doesn’t apply to us.’

“Nowadays the European Parliament has a right to get involved.

“And then the next phase, once when the directive is actually passed, you start the process of putting it into law.

“The sexual orientation employment regulations came into force in 2003 and were duly implemented in the UK, but I don’t think you’ll find all 27 states follow it. So it’s a long process.”

France’s Presidency of the EU means the discrimination directive is as a priority for the present six months and they will seek to conclude it at the Council of Ministers meeting in December.

Stonewall said that while many of the protections set out in the discrimination directive are already law in the UK, there is still a need for the UK to support them.

“Stonewall believes equality for UK citizens should not stop at the Channel,” said Derek Munn, head of public affairs.

“We are also mindful for the need to entrench such protections in the future.”