Ian Duncan MEP: Brexit must not hush our voice for tolerance in Europe

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Conservative MEP Dr Ian Duncan, Vice President of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup, writes for PinkNews about the status of LGBT rights.

Gay rights are not equal across the EU. Nor are they equal across those states bound by the European Convention of Human Rights (which includes non-EU states such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey).

The EU is a strong advocate of LGBT employment rights, but a silent witness when it comes to LGBT social and family rights.

The European Court of Human Rights is a staunch defender of certain gay rights but is anything but an advocate, even when afforded the opportunity: in a recent ruling the Strasbourg-based court declared that gay marriage was not a human right.

The EU has a complex relationship with its LGBT community. Family law – recognition of marriage, spousal rights, adoption etc. – is reserved to Member States, resulting in a mosaic of rights across the Union. Employment issues on the other hand are an EU competence and so inequality in the workplace is outlawed.

EU law recognises LGBT status as a qualification for asylum and it takes it into account when foreign aid is granted. The EU often speaks in code, enough to suggest activism but not so much as to offend traditionalism.

Gay rights in Europe as a whole are even less certain. In Turkey, violence is a common companion of LGBT gatherings; Istanbul Pride was cancelled outright this year.

The LGBT community in Russia faces even greater persecution (and prosecution): physical violence, intimidation, discrimination in the workplace and beyond, hate speech, all combined with a police force and judiciary which is part of the problem. In Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus gay rights are similarly precarious.

Whilst we may be willing to believe that LGBT rights are not priorities in the lands where ‘there be dragons,’ we are rightly troubled when we witness discrimination within the EU. Take the right to marry.

Fully supported by all states when it comes to a man and a woman, not even close to being fully supported for same sex couples.

The UK Parliament legislated for gay marriage on the 29th March 2014 (the Scottish Parliament shortly thereafter).

France, which adopted its gay marriage legislation before us, has witnessed regular marches in protest ever since. Germany does not allow gay marriage, and Chancellor Merkel has made clear gay marriage is not a priority of her administration. Indeed 15 EU member states do not recognise gay marriage (or any of the rights which stem from it).

A further six of these states do not formally recognise gay relationships in any form whilst seven have a constitutional interdiction on gay marriage.

Last month I found myself on a journey that took me to Italy and to the Czech Republic. Wherever I travel and whenever I can I meet with local LGBT groups.

I want to understand the situation on the ground when it comes to gay rights, and where I find a problem I want to see if there is anything I can do about it.

I am Vice President of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup and often that body can help, whether it be by raising awareness or simply by providing gay rights’ advocates with a platform in the Parliament.

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association (ILGA) both the Czech Republic and Italy rated pretty poorly in 2015 when it comes to gay rights, ranking 21st and 23rd respectively (out of 28 EU states).

Until May this year, Italy did not recognise civil partnerships for same-sex couples and is still a long way from gay marriage.

It took a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights and a confidence vote orchestrated by the Italian PM to secure progress.

Whilst civil partnerships are now on the statute books, opposition to equal marriage rights remains strong. (The ruling itself was the first time that the Court had given legal recognition to sex-same couples, a notable step forward after its rejection of same sex marriage as a human right earlier in the year).

In the Czech Republic civil partnership legislation has been recognised for some time. Indeed the Czech Republic was one of the first countries in Central and Eastern Europe to do so. However, equal marriage remains a distant prospect.

That being said, this year the Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that banning same-sex couples from adopting children, ‘interferes with their human dignity and breaches their right to private life.’ Progress with gay adoption is likely to promote the Czech Republic up the Rainbow rankings.

The UK is third in the EU in terms of the rights enjoyed by its LGBT community, behind Malta and Belgium.

Not bad, but there is room for improvement. Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK in terms of gay marriage, and there is still much to be done on trans and intersex rights. Addressing the blood ban would also be a step forward.

The UK does have a strong record in human rights, as befits a key drafter of the original European Convention. Going forward, the rights of the British LGBT community will not be diminished by the UK’s departure from the EU, but our influence for good on the other EU member states will be.

The UK is a voice for tolerance in the councils of Europe, and Brexit risks this voice being hushed.

Following on from my meetings with rights activists in Rome and Prague, I am looking forward to hosting representatives in Brussels in the New Year, highlighting the challenges that lie ahead for the LGBTI communities of Italy and the Czech Republic.

For as long as I remain an MEP, I will continue to do all I can to highlight where and how the EU can do more to protect and advance the rights of its LGBT community. There is still so much work to do.

Dr Ian Duncan is a Conservative MEP