IRELAND AND Lithuania have much in common. Both are small, Catholic, Europhile, enjoy a tricky relationship with a larger neighbour and have cuisines heavy on potatoes. Both also left it late when it came to gay rights. Homosexual acts were decriminalised only in 1993 in both countries. But since then, things have diverged. In the space of a generation, Ireland went from considering homosexuality a crime to allowing gay marriage and electing a gay taoiseach with little fuss. Life for gay Lithuanians has been less happy. Laws banning gay “propaganda” are still on the books. Civil partnerships, let alone same-sex marriage, remain a pipe-dream. Merely living without fear would be an improvement: 84% of LGBT people in Lithuania are not comfortable revealing their identity.

Where an iron curtain once split Europe, a rainbow curtain now divides the continent. In western Europe, gay people enjoy a quality of life better than anywhere on the planet. They are free to marry and adopt children, and are protected from discrimination in all walks of life. Things in eastern Europe are not so good. In seven EU countries, including Poland, Hungary and Romania, less than half the population agree that gay people should have the same rights as straight ones. Civil partnerships are not offered in six EU countries, all in central and eastern Europe. Poland has introduced “LGBT-free zones”, a legally meaningless gimmick with the practical effect of declaring open season on gay people. Meanwhile, Hungary is working on a law that will ban gay couples from adopting. For gay people behind the Rainbow Curtain—which covers about a quarter of the EU’s population—life can be grim.

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For a continent that prides itself on gay rights, the split between west and east is a scar. After all, gay rights hold outsize importance in European life. Denmark was the first country to allow civil partnerships, and the Netherlands was the first to introduce gay marriage, in 2001, the same year that it allowed same-sex couples to adopt. In Brussels, gay rights are an area of diversity EU officials are comfortable talking about. When race is brought up officials wince, reminded of the almost preposterous lack of non-white faces within EU institutions. There are, however, plenty of gay people in the corridors of power. The Eurovision Song Contest, one of the few transcontinental events, is a festival of camp. (Although not for everyone: the year that Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag act, won the event, Poland entered a decidedly heteronormative act featuring buxom women seductively churning butter.)

Improved rights for gay people were a quid pro quo for membership when the EU expanded eastward from 2004. Romania, for instance, was forced to ditch its law against homosexuality before it was allowed to enter in 2007. With the prospect of EU membership looming over the political class, complaints were confined to bishops in the Romanian Orthodox church. (Sample quote: “We want to enter Europe, not Sodom and Gomorrah.”). Once they were in the club, however, this leverage disappeared and backsliding began. When Law and Justice, the governing right-wing conservative party from Poland, first came to power in 2005, one of its immediate actions was to scrap the government department responsible for LGBT policies. Things were so bad that Robert Biedron, a Polish MEP and one of the country’s few prominent LGBT figures, says he started learning Swedish in case he had to flee. Just as governments in Poland and Hungary have trampled over judicial independence and free media, so too have they cracked down on gay rights. Gay people in general are another victim of the EU’s inability to ensure that countries maintain the standards that allowed them into the club in the first place.

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Since family law is mainly up to member states, there is little the EU can do if a member state wants to stop a lesbian marrying or a gay couple adopting. Where Brussels can muscle in is when the right to free movement collides with bigoted domestic law. What happens if a gay couple and their child move to a country where such relationships are not recognised? The European Commission wants to smooth out these bumps, ensuring that the link between children and their gay parents is not severed if they move to a country where gay adoption is banned. While few are affected directly, such a move has potent symbolic power. Definitions of online hate speech will be widened to include homophobic abuse, too. Towns that introduced LGBT-free zones in Poland had EU funds cut. But the main thing the EU can offer is a pulpit, hammering those leaders who refuse to treat citizens equally.

Peek behind the curtain

Such banging of the drum for gay rights by Brussels does come with a risk. It is a fight both sides want to have. Normally, populists rely on caricatures when taking aim at Brussels. In this case there is less need. Populist politicians will claim that the EU is doing all it can to force countries to treat gay people better. EU officials will happily plead guilty. A common complaint is that eastern Europe is expected to go through decades of social change in the space of a few years. (Denmark legalised gay sex in 1933, but it took nearly eight decades before gay people could marry.) Change can happen quickly, though. Ireland enjoyed a social revolution in less than a generation, and Malta passed a slew of legislation that helped it become the most gay-friendly country in the EU in just a few years. There are few complaints about the pace of transformation in central and eastern Europe when it comes to living standards.

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With the EU cowering beneath a second wave of covid-19 cases and in the middle of its biggest-ever recession, a fight over gay rights could easily fall down the pecking order. It should not. The EU has made much of promoting “European values”. Usually, these tend to mean a respect for the rule of law, which is hardly inherently European. When it comes to gay rights, however, Europe has genuinely been a pioneer. Until a gay person in Vilnius or Budapest has the same rights as one in Dublin or Madrid, European values are no such thing at all.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The rainbow curtain”

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