Navigation path

Left navigation

Additional tools

Other available languages: none

European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Martine Reicherts

EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

Change and continuity: what lies ahead for LGBTI rights in the EU?

Conference organised by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency on "Tackling sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination"

Brussels, 28 October 2014

Main messages

We have been working to strengthen the rights of LGBTI persons at European level for years. Yet, drawing up a dedicated comprehensive framework would raise the issue to new level. An action plan would be an important signal for LGBTI persons all across the EU. With it the Commission would be able to emphasise its commitment to do its part to end the unacceptable discrimination these citizens are still confronted with.

But of course there are still limits to what can be done at EU level. There is only so much the Commission can do. It will need to stick to initiatives in areas where it actually has competence. This is essential. If it pushes too hard, there is a real danger that it will harm the prospects of those it is trying to help.

This is why it would be important to have Member States on board, to work on this action plan with them and implement it together with them. The Commission can of course provide support, but we will need to work on this with Member States. We will only be able to tackle discrimination successfully if the actions at EU level are complemented by initiatives in the Member States – at national, regional and local level.

We need to move forward on the horizontal Equal Treatment Directive. But to be frank: After six years of deadlock in the Council, this will take strong political will, creativity – and a readiness to compromise, on all sides.

One way forward could be a change of the legal basis that would allow a group of Member States to go ahead and adopt the directive under enhanced cooperation. I keep hearing that there is a substantial number of countries that supports the proposal. Well, what about giving them the opportunity to say this loud and clear and move forward?

If enhanced cooperation turns out to be the only way to break the deadlock, I personally believe we should not defeat ourselves by clinging to an ideal objective we may never be able to achieve. Taking a small step is better than waiting for a big one that might just be impossible at this moment in time.

Giving the promotion of LGBTI rights visibility by means of an action plan and using legislation to eliminate discrimination are hugely important steps. But I believe the most important work to improve the lives of LGBTI persons is done on the ground, every day, by NGOs, activists and other enthusiastic individuals. It is crucial that we keep this up. The Commission has been very active supporting awareness raising projects and I am certain it will continue to do so, as this is the best way to make a real difference in people's lives. Change needs to happen first and foremost in people's heads and hearts.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very honoured and pleased to be here today. The fight against discrimination is an issue very close to my heart, in particular the discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons. That is why I am very much looking forward to the discussions we will have this morning, and especially to hear your views and ideas for the future.

With the imminent change of the European Commission, this is a perfect time not only to take stock of what has been achieved over the past years, but, more importantly, to look ahead. The promotion of LGBTI rights and the fight against discrimination will be high on the agenda of the new College. Both the new President Jean-Claude Juncker and the next Commissioner for Justice, my successor Věra Jourová, have made that clear.

The details are of course still open at this stage. This is a great opportunity. An opportunity for all of us to be creative, to have a broad debate about what we want to achieve over the next five years, and about how we will attain our goals. This discussion is already in full swing. What I want to do today is to outline my ideas – as the outgoing EU Commissioner for Justice, but also as a person who is deeply attached to this cause.

I will focus on three crucial points. First, I want to talk about the idea of an action plan dedicated to promoting LGBTI rights and the roles I believe the Commission and Member States could play in implementing it. Second, I will make the case that we need to unblock the horizontal antidiscrimination directive – which will require great creativity and probably some hard choices on all sides. And third, I will argue that, as important as these steps are, raising awareness remains key. Only by knowing more about each other can we overcome fear and prejudice.

1) The action plan for LGBTI rights: opportunities, limitations and the importance of joining forces

I know that many of you have been calling for a framework and initiatives in the LGBTI area for a long time. Just a few weeks ago, Ms Jourová stated that she intends to work with the incoming Vice-President Frans Timmermans on an action plan with the Member States. And I think the time has come for such a partnership.

The Commission has launched several dedicated strategies over the past few years – for example on gender equality and the integration of Roma. Following up with an LGTBI action plan would be the right move because – as these examples have shown – defining objectives and responsibilities in this way will give the cause of advancing LGBTI rights in the EU even more focus and, most importantly, visibility.

As you know, we have been working to strengthen the rights of LGBTI persons at European level for years. For instance, new rights for crime victims have been introduced on the initiative of the Commission that ensure that people who are attacked on grounds of sexual orientation or identity are protected and get the support they need. Moreover, the Commission has been funding a number of projects designed to raise awareness and promote the rights of LGBTI persons – a point I will discuss in more detail later on.

So we have been active at European level. Yet, drawing up a dedicated comprehensive framework would raise the issue to new level. This action plan would be an important signal to LGBTI persons all across the EU. But as important as it is to have an action plan, it is not an end in itself. The action plan is a vehicle. To carry concrete, realistic and relevant content with meaningful projects and objectives. Because what counts in the end is whether we really make a difference in people's lives. And that is where you come in. You will have an important contribution to make with your ideas, your creativity.

With this action plan, the Commission would be able to emphasise its commitment to do its part to end the unacceptable discrimination LGBTI persons are still confronted with. But of course there are still limits to what can be done at EU level. There is only so much the Commission can do. It will need to stick to initiatives in areas where it actually has competence. This is essential. Not only because it obviously has to respect the law and the competences of Member States. If it pushes too hard, there is a real danger that it will harm the prospects of those it is trying to help.

This is why it would be important to have Member States on board, to work on this action plan with them and implement it together with them. They will need to step in where they can and where they have to. The area of criminal law is one example I am thinking of here. That is why I agree with the incoming Justice Commissioner, who stated that she intends to draw up the action plan in cooperation with Member States. The Commission can of course provide support, but we will need to work on this together with Member States. We will only be able to tackle discrimination successfully if the actions at EU level are complemented by initiatives in the Member States – at national, regional and local level.

2) The horizontal antidiscrimination directive: time to talk – and to move

The general Equal Treatment Directive has been blocked for years. This is a real pity. Banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation (among others) in access to goods and services, social security and education would fill an important gap in the EU antidiscrimination acquis. It would make a tangible difference in people's lives, eliminating the obstacles and rejection which many LGBTI persons still keep running into – from being refused medical treatment to homophobic bullying in school, to name but two examples. Even if protection against this kind of discrimination exists in one country, people cannot be sure that they can rely on it in another.

This puts LGBTI persons in a precarious position. I find this deeply unfair – and intolerable. We need to move forward on this issue. That is why it is highly encouraging that President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker has made progress on this directive a priority in his political guidelines for the next Commission. But to be frank: After six years of deadlock in the Council, this will take strong political will, creativity – and a readiness to compromise, on all sides.

With the current legal basis, Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the proposal requires unanimity in the Council. Hence all it takes is a small number or even just one Member State opposing the text – and everybody is absolved from even having to engage in a serious discussion.

I would like to see governments take a position. At the same time, you cannot force Member States to agree to something. That is a fact we have to live with. Therefore I personally believe one way forward could be a change of the legal basis that would allow a group of Member States to go ahead and adopt the directive under enhanced cooperation. I keep hearing that there is a substantial number of countries that supports the proposal. Well, what about giving them the opportunity to say this loud and clear and move forward?

Ideally, fundamental rights should be guaranteed for all citizens of the European Union, not just for those in certain Member States. But if enhanced cooperation turns out to be the only way to break the deadlock, I personally believe we should not defeat ourselves by clinging to an ideal objective we may never be able to achieve. Taking a small step is better than waiting for a big one that might just be impossible at this moment in time.

I do not claim to have found a miracle cure, and I think the Commission will be open to explore several different avenues. It is essential, however, that we get a real discussion going. And that all sides get serious – even if that means making hard choices.

3) Raising awareness: how we can overcome hatred and fear

Giving the promotion of LGBTI rights visibility by means of an action plan and using legislation to eliminate discrimination are hugely important steps. But I believe the most important work to improve the lives of LGBTI persons is done on the ground, every day, by NGOs, activists and other enthusiastic individuals – many of whom are represented here today. By spreading information, initiating debates, and offering support you and your collaborators are doing an invaluable job in fighting prejudice and helping LGBTI persons to know and exercise their rights.

It is crucial that we keep this up. The Commission has been very active supporting awareness raising projects and I am certain it will continue to do so, as this is the best way to make a real difference in people's lives. There are a number of great examples that have received EU funding. Take for instance Transgender at Work, a project run in Berlin to fight discrimination of transgender people in the workplace through discussions and workshops. Or take initiatives focused on helping young people in education. Here, the EU for instance supports Rainbow HAS, a project that was set up by educational institutions, family associations and municipalities across EU countries to provide research and help students express sexual diversity while in education. This project carries out training workshops for teachers and parents' groups, for example, and analyses LGBT support services in different European countries to find examples of best practice.

It is projects like this, big and small, with which people like you help to improve citizens' lives. Day by day, bit by bit. This may not grab the headlines like a breakthrough on the antidiscrimination directive would. But it directly affects so many citizens and helps all of us to move closer together. Change needs to happen first and foremost in people's heads and hearts. That is why you should be proud of the work you do – and why we should keep on working together to advance this cause.

Thank you.


Side Bar