Commission to scale down anti-discrimination proposal

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Due to resistance from conservative member states, the Commission is likely to backtrack on its plans for an anti-discrimination directive, proposing only to offer protection against discrimination on disability grounds.

Other forms of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, age, religion or belief will be covered only by recommendations to member states. 

Those familiar with the process say that the Commission’s retreat is due to pressure from Conservative member states – and namely Poland – which seem to have difficulty accepting legislation against discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality or non-Christian religious beliefs. 

In order to become law throughout the EU, a directive on anti-discrimination would require unanimity in the Council. 

The Commission's indication that the proposed directive would only include concrete measures against discrimination on the grounds of disability went down badly with the NGOs and MEPs that are engaged in the matter. 

UK Liberal MEP Liz Lynne, who is the Parliament's rapporteur for its own-initiative report on "Progress made in equal opportunities and non-discrimination in the EU," said: "Millions of individuals encounter discrimination every day. A comprehensive horizontal directive covering access to goods and services would tackle this discrimination and break down the barriers currently faced by so many." Lynne reacted by launching an on-line petition for a directive to outlaw all forms of discrimination

UK Green MEP Jean Lambert called the Commission's backtracking "a real blow to the protection of many groups experiencing discrimination in the European Union". Lambert deplored that while "the directive is being held back by the most conservative countries [...] those like the UK who have progressive laws on this issue have failed to push for protection across the EU".

In an Open Letter, Dutch Green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg and UK Labour MEP Michael Cashman accused José Manuel Barroso of not holding on to promises he had given before he was elected Commission President: "A Commission spokesman said that we had to accept "political reality". Which reality? Your lack of courage? Maybe you expect that a general anti-discrimination Directive will be vetoed by unwilling member states? If so that is a hurdle that we have to jump over at a later stage. Without a proposal from the Commission, the national governments do not have to do anything and therefore you make life too easy for homophobic politicians in some capitals. If your predecessors had given up at the first sign of resistance, Europe would not have an internal market or be a front runner in environmental protection."

The Social Platform wrote another letter; this one to the heads of all three EU institutions. The NGO network reminded also reminded Barroso of his 2004 promise that "civil rights and an antidiscrimination approach will be top priorities for this Commission", adding that "one year before the end of his mandate and the European elections, the time has arrived to take the legal steps needed to promote equality for all in Europe". 

It called upon the EU to build on the legacy of the Race equality and Employment framework directives "to adopt new legal steps to protect all people from all forms of discriminations". 

Deborah Lambillotte, co-chair of the executive board of the European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-Europe), reminded European decision-makers "that the principles of human rights and equality are the basis upon which the current Commission was approved by the European Parliament four years ago," adding that "the Commission needs to live up to its promises, deliver such a directive and prove that the commitments made in 2004 were not just empty words".

European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary John Monks said: "A broad directive covering all the grounds mentioned in Article 13 of the Treaty 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." 

He added: "With the ageing of our populations, the growing diversity of our societies in terms of ethnic origin and religion, and the increasing intolerance against people because of their different sexual orientations, a strong and coherent body of law - protecting all our citizens from discrimination wherever they are in the EU – should be the priority target. Limiting the initiative now to disability leaves other grounds uncovered in the foreseeable future by EU-wide standards."

Loopholes remain in existing EU legislation to combat discrimination, critics say. A Framework Directive against all forms of discrimination, announced by José Manuel Barroso when he became Commission president in 2004, would close those gaps. 

The Commission made its proposal a priority for 2008. Meanwhile, Parliament addressed the issue in an own-initiative report to be voted upon in May. 

  • 19 May 2008: Parliament plenary vote on Lynne report on non-discrimination.

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