Parliament backs calls for EU anti-discrimination law

The European Parliament has reminded Commission President José Manuel Barroso of his commitment to put forward a directive outlawing discrimination on a whole range of grounds, including disability, age, religion or belief and sexual orientation, as Brussels finalises preparations for a social policy package to be presented in June. 

While the Commission made its proposal on anti-discrimination a priority for 2008, a month ago it signalled its intention to backtrack on its initial ambition and merely present a proposal against discrimination on grounds of disability (EURACTIV 23/04/08). 

Social NGOs had great expectations of Parliament’s report on the progress made on equal opportunities and non-discrimination in the EU, which was adopted on 20 April 2008. The rapporteur, UK Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne, confirmed her positive stance on broader anti-discrimination legislation by launching an on-line petition in favour of an EU anti-discrimination directive. MEPs from the Socialist and Green Groups also backed such a directive

The Conservative EPP-ED group, however, opposed the call for another directive, arguing that “a non-specific directive prohibiting discrimination” was not “the appropriate tool for dealing with the complex needs of individuals”.  

The non-binding own-intitiative report calls for broad protection against discrimination in all areas of EU competence, as well as in education, housing, social protection, healthcare and a number of other areas. It stresses the particular vulnerability of people who are subject to multiple forms of discrimination, for instance black Muslim women or disabled gay people.

The report also finds that existing EU legislation against discrimination has not fully delivered and some member states have failed to either fully implement EU directives or to enforce the respect of the resulting legislation. 

The report calls for “effective, proportionate and disuasive” sanctions for those who violate anti-discrimination law as well as legal assistance for the victims of such behaviour. 

The report was adopted by 362 votes (mainly from the Socialist, Liberal, Green and left-wing groups) to 262 (mostly from the EPP-ED and right-wing groups), while 56 MEPs abstained. The same majority opposed an EPP-ED amendment denying the need for a directive. 

In the Parliament debate on 20 May 2008, UK Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne, who was the rapporteur for the report, justified her call for an integrated approach to combating discrimination: "We must move away from the piecemeal approach, there can be no hierarchy of discrimination.  A new directive must cover discrimination to access and services on all grounds that have not been covered as yet under Article 13 legislation: disability, age, religion or belief and sexual orientation."

In spite of the fact that the Womens' Rights Committee was the lead committee for her report, Lynne said that a new directive should cover neither gender nor race and employment, because those "are already covered" by EU directives. 

She warned the EU executive: "The Commission made the commitment to a comprehensive directive in its work programme for 2008. There appears to be some backtracking on this and they might only bring forward legislation on disability and nothing else. This is not acceptable. Every EU citizen must be treated equally."

EPP-ED MEP Edit Bauer said: "It is necessary that political culture and tolerance is present in the workplace, in public life, communication, from national to local level in our everyday lives." 

She added, however: "It is a fact [...] that there is a real gap in European legislation, namely between Article 13 of the Treaty and existing Directives. The EPP-ED Group believes that closing this gap by a comprehensive but less effective Directive which will not be properly implemented is not the right solution. The Group considers that the most compelling challenge is to first combat the discrimination of the 84 million disabled people living in the EU, representing about 17% of the total population, by a European Directive to ensure equal rights for them throughout the Union."

Social NGO alliance Social Platform stressed that "more than 90% of respondents to the Commission's public consultation believe that there should be protection from discrimination on the grounds covered by Article 13 in education, social protection, housing, health care or when buying goods or pay for services". It added that "63% of the businesses included in the European Business Test Panel believe that it matters if there are different levels of protection between the EU member states".  

Social Platform President Conny Reuter supported the Parliament's call for a comprehensive directive: "Mr. Barroso has made an antidiscrimination approach a top priority for the Commission. With one year of his mandate left, we keenly anticipate that this will be translated into action, delivering comprehensive legal protection banning discrimination on all grounds and in all areas of life. There is no equality without the same legal protection for all." 

Mohammed Aziz, President of European Network Against Racism (ENAR), declared himself "very happy that the European Parliament has shown once again that it is a consistent supporter of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation". Aziz said: "The Commission cannot ignore this strong call for legislation covering all discrimination grounds. There is clear evidence of the need to fight religious discrimination in Europe. It is only by fighting for comprehensive protection against all grounds of discrimination that we will achieve equal opportunities for all in jobs, accommodation, schools, etc."  

Martin K.I. Christensen, Co-Chair of the Executive of Board European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-Europe) called the Parliament's vote "very positive and encouraging news". He said: "We are thankful to the Parliament for standing up for non-negotiable equality and ending a current embarrassing hierarchy of rights and protections. The people of Europe spoke today through their representatives to say that Europe should no longer tolerate the situation where some groups are left unprotected and without redress from discrimination. Now it is all up to the Commission to deliver on its promise and propose one directive covering all grounds of discrimination in all areas of life."  

Nicolas Beger, Director of the Amnesty International EU Office, said: "Discrimination is still wide spread in Europe. The Commission must fight it with measures that leave no one behind."  

Loopholes remain in existing EU legislation to combat discrimination, critics say. Existing anti-discrimination legislation only covers mistreatment on grounds of gender and for employment issues. 

A Framework Directive against other forms of discrimination, based for example on age, religion or belief and sexual orientation, was announced by José Manuel Barroso when he became Commission president in 2004. 

  • June 2008: Commission to propose a comprehensive social policy package including anti-discrimination proposal.

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