Comment: Why do Europe and LGBT equality measures cause such splits in mainstream parties?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Writing for PinkNews, Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats Adrian Trett says there are political similarities when it comes to arguing the case for equality and the European Union.

Writing in the capacity of both the Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, and Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrats European Group, this article may already seem to you to have an obvious bias. However, for once, I’m going to try and be objective to fundamentally explain why I believe the issues of Europe and individual freedoms of equality are intrinsically linked in today’s political spectrum.

Originating from a strongly social conservative background in the heartland of Norfolk, my immediate decision to support the Liberal Democrats, and not follow in my instinctive family traditions were down to these two fundamentally decisive issues.

At the time of growing, up in the late 1980s and early 1990’s the introduction of Section 28 was very apparent. The homophobic bullying I faced, knowing I was gay at a very early age, sent me running to find Liberal safewaters. Added to that, I then went to university, studying politics, French and Italian. I lived abroad for a year and wondered why was then any fuss regarding European integration and sharing cultures, jobs, travel and all the benefits the European Union brings to us.

Since, then I haven’t sat back. I have resolutely defended Liberal Democrats’ stand on all equality issues, particularly leading the campaign for equal marriage and will back our membership of the European Union until I am dead by the side of a ditch: why?

One of the fundamental reasons I didn’t join the Conservatives was because I didn’t believe the party wholeheartedly believed in these issues. I am delighted to see Prime Minister David Cameron and LGBTory work so hard and yet not even half of their MPs walked through the ayes lobby. I’m distraught at having four of my MPs, who I valued and respected dearly, alongside one clear abstention vote against. Even the Labour Party that so likes to give the impression that it is the “only” party of equality, managed to accrue 22 MPs voting against the same-sex marriage bill.

So why am I linking this to Europe? Well funnily enough I believe that should there have been such a fundamental vote on the principle of EU membership, a similar position would have occurred. A majority in the Conservatives would have voted against, a similar if not a few more Labourites who don’t follow the traditional European path would have too, and a handful of rebellious Liberal Democrats who don’t seem to recognise the fruits of freedom Europe brings.

And for me, freedom is the key word in this debate, as Nick Clegg has said the “freedom to be who you are, love and marry who you want” could be aligned quite seriously with the right to be free, to travel, live, work and enjoy where you want to as well.

All these are fundamentally liberal values and therefore restricting any of these is quite vehemently wrong. The conservative split on Europe reminds me of how one group can have all the rights, and another for some inexplicable reason can’t. Therefore, allowing people from Britain to go and live on Spanish costa Del money, hoarding away their assets in properties etc: is all ok, but if you then don’t allow hard working Poles and Czechs to come to our country and bolster the economy, then you are failing to give equal treatment.

You can’t have one rule for one and one rule for another, and the same goes for marriage. Everyone has the right for their relationship to be equated as equal in legal terms, whatever the gender of the couple, wherever the ceremony took place, and whatever benefits, whether financial, inherited, pensionable or otherwise they will enjoy. That’s why when you join an institution whether it’s marriage or the European Union, you can’t pick and choose which bits suit you, and deny others the same rights.

If you have the fundamental freedom to travel and work, live and reside in the place of your choice, then so does everyone else whatever nationality. Just because we may have an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians next January, no Europhobe can turn round and say, sorry you can’t come here, because we belong to a market with free movement of people. Without then saying sorry to all those 4 million British people who live, work and enjoy their lives in countries across Europe and tell them to come back home. That’s why leaving the European Union is such a non-starter. Yes to reform, stop travelling circuses to Strasbourg, improve the audit records and make the rules less bureaucratic, but there is absolutely no point in leaving the Union.

Similarly, the march towards equal marriage on the European continent is on an upward curve. Since, the Netherlands legalised equal marriage in 2001, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, to name but a few have followed and with the vote in the England & Wales, and in France last week, let’s hope this enthuses activists in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere to give everyone the freedom to love who they want whether Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or straight in Europe, and we all continue to share in the integrated benefits that the European Union brings to the table.

Adrian Trett is Chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, and Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrats European Group.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of