LGBTI rights and EU Enlargement

  • February 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

LGBTI rights and EU Enlargement

Backsliding is all too common across Europe, and the EU’s unreliable allyship risks the lives and freedoms of Western Balkan LGBTI activists.


File:Parada ponosa Ponos Srbije 2018, 01.jpg

Source: Wikimedia/Mickey Mystique


This week, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association Europe (ILGA-Europe) launched its Annual Report 2020 in Brussels. This report goes beyond the EU, covering the human rights situation for LGBTI people in 54 countries across Europe and Central Asia as well as reviewing the work of the EU, UN, Council of Europe and OSCE.


The Commissioner for Equality, Helene Dalli from Malta, attended the event. Malta, the EU’s smallest member state, has built a strong reputation for promoting LGBTI rights at home and in Europe.  Commissioner Dalli made a staunch defence of LGBTI rights and highlighted the need for vigilance against bullying and hate speech, lest it open the door to even worse. In this regard, the Commissioner spoke of LGBTI victims of the Nazis and committed the Commission to take any necessary actions within its Treaty competences in order to stop violence, hatred or discrimination.


The concern for civil society activists is that, in 2020, states still need to be told to respect the fundamental rights of LGBTI people. A case in point is that of Poland. Local politicians have begun classifying their areas as ‘LGBT free zones’, resulting in a strong backlash from civil society activists, the European Parliament, and the European Commission. The Polish Campaign Against Homophobia, also present at the event, worked with the Commissioner to discuss solutions. What mattered most to them was about upholding and defending the rule of law, so that ordinary LGBTI people would be able to make legal challenges if need be. It also called for the EU to develop a Directive on countering hate crime to ensure that LGBTI people across the Union have at least a basic level of protection.

Looking at the Western Balkans demonstrates the EU’s importance for minority rights activists. Under Article 49 TEU, ‘any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.’ To join the EU, Western Balkan states need to reform their legal and administrative systems to support LGBTI equality. However, the picture remains mixed in most of the Western Balkan countries, based on the ILGA Annual Report 2020 and the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA) Enlargement Review 2019.

In Albania, NGOs reported discrimination against transgender women in the rental market, as well as 449 hate crimes against LGBT people in 2019. Only 34 were reported to the authorities by victims, and only 1 was acted on. Reporting hate crime to NGOs instead of the authorities is a common issue not only in the Western Balkans but across Europe, out of fear of having their sexualities exposed, or mistrust/mistreatment at the hands of the institutions.

Albania rejected the UN’s and NGOs’ calls to ban ‘sex normalisation’ surgery on intersex children, and anti-LGBTI bullying remains common in schools with no policy in place to tackle it. The media still uses derogatory language, particularly towards transgender people. Pride Marches are respected and supported by government figures and security services, and the Police Academy has worked with NGOs on LGBTI-related training.

However, there is still no provision for legal gender recognition or for same-sex partnerships despite draft laws having been produced. Transgender Albanians remain particularly vulnerable. Public opinion on LGBTI people is still predominantly negative and most LGBTI people feel forced to hide their identities. In 2019, 17 LGBT Albanians sought asylum abroad.

Some LGBTI people from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) also seek asylum abroad. A lesbian couple who were assaulted in Banja Luka (a predominantly Serbian area) ended up leaving the country after being met with police hostility in reporting. Anti-discrimination laws exist but are poorly implemented and few LGBTI-related cases have gone to court. Hate speech intensified around the time of the Pride March, particularly online, and football fans flew the Brunei flag in apparent support for the death penalty for same sex relations with no repercussions. In the predominantly Bosniak and Croatian area, the Sarajevo Pride and the Merlinka International Queer Film Festival went ahead successfully, although the organisers of the former  complained about what they felt to be unreasonably large security bills. Police training on hate crimes in partnership with NGOs also took place, but it was uncertain if it was a one-off or not. Same-sex couples lack legal recognition, and transgender people lack legal gender recognition as well as state-funded healthcare. Intersex children undergo unnecessary ‘sex normalisation’ procedures.

In Kosovo, a Ministry of Justice official was arrested for commenting online that LGBTI people should be beheaded. A new Criminal Code (Jan 2019) bans hate crimes and hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Civil society has threatened to take the government to court over the Civil Code failing to include recognition of same-sex partnerships. Some parties publicly supported LGBTI rights in the 2019 elections. Earlier this year Blert Morina, a trans man, was finally able to get his ID changed after 2 years of legal battles, but there remains no official gender recognition process. Pride Week was supported by the government and the opening was held in the President’s building.

North Macedonian trans people have faced difficulties in accessing healthcare. A trans woman was harassed and denied her prescribed hormones at a pharmacy, and no state or professional bodies found discrimination to have taken place. The Minister of Health announced trans healthcare would be covered by public insurance but gave in and withdrew the decision under transphobic public pressure. On a more positive note, a new law on Primary Education made it mandatory for schools to report cases of anti-LGBTI discrimination or face a fine. An anti-discrimination law was also adopted, protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The first Skopje Pride took place on 29 June and was met by counter-protests and violent attacks against NGO activists. In the latter case, the police did their job in protecting the activists and were also attacked. North Macedonia still lacks a legal framework for gender recognition, and the ECHR ruled accordingly that it is in violation of the right to a private and family life.

Montenegro also has a poor record on trans healthcare and protecting trans people against hate-motivated attacks. Two nurses at the Podgorica Health Centre were considered by the Deputy Ombudsman to have shown transphobic behaviour in mocking a trans woman seeking hormone therapy. The case has been sent to the Commission for Quality Control, but little has been done to secure access to hormone therapy. A Commission for Transgender Health in the Clinical Centre is working on plans to remove medical hurdles to gender transition. Some towns have adopted their own local LGBTI action plans together with NGOs. Among school students, prejudice and myths persist surrounding trans peers, but 62% would support trans students in any case. Public opinion more broadly remains mixed – fewer people believe LGBTI people to be harmful, but only 27% of those surveyed by the Ministry of Human and Minority rights would be ready to instantly support their child if they came out as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Finally, in Serbia, hate crimes remain a serious issue, and Belgrade’s Pride Information Centre has been vandalised on multiple occasions with little police action. Textbooks no longer describe homosexuality as a disease, and NGOs have provided training for high school teachers and psychologists. Serbia’s female PM is in a same-sex relationship, and recently had a child with her partner who travelled abroad for fertility treatment, but has come under criticism from LGBTI activists for not acting to secure same-sex legal partnerships and family rights – artificial insemination and IVF are banned for those who have had homosexual relations in the last 5 years. Pride of Serbia was supported by the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, but activists still faced threats after the parade. Belgrade Pride was conducted safely, but its associated Pride Caravan was disrupted in Valjevo and banned in Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim town in the Sandzak region. Legal gender recognition is now in place, removing mandatory surgery and sterilisation requirements, but the process still involves medical restrictions that limit trans rights and freedoms.

Overall, the EU and the Western Balkans face similar challenges on LGBTI rights. Progress is happening slowly. It has to be fought for, and the battle is never entirely won. Backsliding is all too commonplace across Europe. The difference is, EU-based activists can rely on the European Union to serve as an ally. The slowdown in the accession process risks depriving Western Balkan activists of the EU’s allyship. This, in the field of LGBTI activism, can and does mean that their very lives and freedoms are at stake.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

Gibraltar, English, Rock, Coast, Mediterranean

Source: Pixabay

Despite voting 96% to Remain, Gibraltar now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

As the UK hurtles towards Brexit, its people have been swept along for the ride whether they voted for it or not. The CFEP has extensively covered the Scottish situation, but the Gibraltarian situation remains under-discussed.

Gibraltar’s story is as, if not more, complex than Scotland’s. A disputed territory between Spain and the UK, its culture, society, politics and economics all stem from its geopolitical situation. As such, it voted 96% to Remain in the European Union. Despite that decisive result, it now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

The BBC has a brief explainer of Spain and the UK’s claims. In short, it revolves around a 1713 treaty ceding Gibraltar from Spain to the UK. Anglo-Dutch forces captured its fortress in 1704, and it was then ceded to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain maintains that the treaty limits British sovereignty to particular areas of Gibraltar. It does not recognise the airport and the territorial waters as UK sovereign territory. The UK maintains that the whole of Gibraltar was ceded to it forever, with no exceptions.


In more modern times, the two states have resorted to different doctrines of international law. The UK relies on the idea of self-determination: the people of Gibraltar have chosen to remain linked to the UK and have rejected shared sovereignty with Spain, and their will should be observed. For Spain, non-interference with the fixed borders of another state (the territorial integrity principle) matters far more than self-determination, particularly for a community which it decries as the result of colonialism.

Gibraltar has been listed as a Non-Self-Governing Territory with the UN since 1946. This is another point of contention between the UK and Spain. In the UN decolonisation process, the UK maintains that Gibraltar is for all extents and purposes decolonised, having responsibility for everything except foreign affairs, defence and internal security. Spain pushes for a solution based on territorial integrity instead of self-determination, citing previous UN resolutions which supported that position. This leaves Gibraltar in limbo. It has a democratically elected government that has the capacity to make its own policy on the vast majority of topics. However, it exists in a liminal space: colonised-on-paper-but-not-in-reality. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, if the UK ever relinquishes Gibraltar, it reverts back to Spain. Even if Gibraltar wanted to be independent – which it does not – it could not be.

Gibraltarian identity is fundamentally shaped by the dispute. During the Francoist period, the border was closed, separating families and leaving a traumatic mark on Gibraltar’s collective memory. One woman recently told Spain’s El Periódico: “My grandmother was very sick in La Línea [the Spanish city bordering Gibraltar] and to go to see her, my mother had to get a ferry to Morocco and from there another to Algeciras. It took over a day and by the time she arrived my grandmother had already died. She never forgave them.” This history has coloured perceptions of Spain to the point that some view its persistence in claiming Gibraltar as borderline totalitarian.


As detailed in a House of Lords report on Brexit and Gibraltar, many Gibraltarians thank Spanish accession to the European Economic Community for reopening the border. Building on that achievement, the Brussels Process began in 1984. It sought to set up UK-Spain discussions, reduce restrictions on moving goods and people over the land border (Gibraltar is not in the Customs Union or Schengen) and provide reciprocal rights for Spanish people in Gibraltar and Gibraltarians in Spain. It failed to directly include Gibraltarians and collapsed in 2002 when they voted against shared sovereignty.

In 2004, the UK, Spain and Gibraltar set up a Forum for Dialogue. This had more success, making deals on pension payments to retirees who had worked in Gibraltar, easing border crossing, Gibraltar dialling codes, cross-border economic cooperation, allowing Gibraltar’s Airport to take part in EU aviation measures, and permitting civilian aircraft to use Spanish airspace.

Finally, in 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon discussions resulted in text setting out Gibraltar’s unique status as a European territory with a Member State responsible for its external relations. Trilateral talks collapsed in 2011 when the hard-line Partido Popular governed Spain once more. During intense border disruption in 2012-13, the UK was able to appeal to the European Commission on Gibraltar’s behalf. It did not find Spain in breach of EU rules but wrote to both Member States with recommendations and kept up ‘soft’ pressure through subsequent inspection visits. More recently, the UK received a preview of what may be to come. One of its MEPs was forced out of his rapporteur position, for resisting Spanish attempts to footnote Gibraltar as a colony.


Post-Brexit, Gibraltar faces economic losses as well as political. Returning to the House of Lords report, Gibraltar is a diverse service-based economy. Financial services and online gaming provide 40% of its GDP and 25% of total jobs. The right to offer financial services in other European Economic Area countries (Passporting Rights) is vital to the industry and will need to be negotiated as part of the future free trade agreement. Ending the transition period without such an agreement could have a serious impact on Gibraltarian businesses. What’s more, almost 33% of finance jobs are held by frontier workers.

It isn’t just Gibraltar that would suffer from increased border controls. Gibraltar is the second largest employer in the Campo de Gibraltar region, the first being the regional government of Andalucía. Andalucía’s government has calculated that Brexit could cost it between 500 and 1200 million Euros, and proposed that it be granted special access to the European Solidarity Fund to cushion the blow.

What else can be done for Gibraltar? Chief Minister Fabian Picardo recently floated the idea of negotiating passport-free travel with the EU post-Brexit. The UK government rapidly reiterated that it would make the final decision. This scenario would be no threat to the Schengen zone: there are border checks between the UK and Gibraltar, and so the idea is worthy of serious consideration. In the past, more headway has been made while the Partido Socialista Obrero Español is in power in Spain, and it has recently formed a coalition with the left-wing populist party Podemos. This party has expressed little interest in the territorial dispute over Gibraltar, focusing on unemployment in the surrounding area and accusing it of being a tax haven.

It remains to be seen what will happen during the transition period, in previously uncharted political territory for both Spain and Gibraltar. The last word should go to Gibraltarian MP, Marlene Hassan Nahon, who highlighted a key problem with the ideas underlying Brexit.

She expressed the fear that “the interests of a much larger British population will displace those of Gibraltarians in the UK government’s dealings in exiting the European Union.” In light of the UK government’s tendency to privilege the desires of Leave voters over those of Remain voters, she may, unfortunately, be correct.

CFEP in Porto

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

CFEP in Porto

An update on our work with our friends at the TRAIN project


Last week, the Centre for European Progression headed to Porto for a seminar with the Tracing Integration Policies through Structured Dialogue (TRAIN) project team. The project aims to get young people and politicians together to talk about common European legal migration and integration policies. Based on these discussion events, the partners will come together to develop recommendations to the EU institutions.

The project carries out local and international activities, and we will be organising the final activity in Brussels to present the recommendations. Young people can also participate in the project online, and that was the main topic of the Porto seminar. First, we discussed which topics to select for further dialogue both in person and on the forum. Splitting into groups of two, we then spent hours researching, discussing and writing recommendations on our chosen topics.


The CFEP worked on migration with the Law and Internet Foundation (Bulgaria), and used our institutional knowledge to come up with policy recommendations. For example, we participated in the European Council of Refugees and Exiles’ annual conference in October 2019. While there, we learned about examples of good practice on integration. As such, we could recommend that other countries copy Belgium’s DUO for a JOB, pairing over 50s with young jobseekers of a migrant background.

In order to launch our new forum, we visited the Colégio Internato Claret with the help of our partners at Geoclube. There, we presented the project to the students and sat down with them to discuss their ideas. They were an articulate, socially aware group of young people who were full of ideas. The group the CFEP worked with had a particular passion for helping the homeless, having volunteered to distribute food to them. We spoke about how, in the UK, Indian restaurants often open on Christmas to give free dinners and company to people with nowhere else to go. We also decided that food was a way for people to get to know each other’s cultures. In Britain, Meghan Markle worked with the Hubb Community Kitchen – run by and for Grenfell Tower survivors – to produce a cookbook together with women from 12 different countries. Here in Belgium, there is also a Syrian refugees’ catering group in Antwerp.



The groups then posted their ideas on the forum, and we would invite all our followers to do the same! All you need is an email address: there’s no need to make yet another new online account. On the last day of the seminar, we exchanged project experiences with each other, finalised our policy recommendations, and then tackled the francesinha, a local sandwich filled with meat, covered in cheese and a beer sauce. It does come in a vegetarian version, but even then it’s a real challenge to finish!

All in all, we had a good, productive time in Porto and are looking forward to the next seminar in Malta!

A Baptism of Fire: Croatia’s Council Presidency

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire for Croatia.

Source: Pixabay


Only six and half years after joining the EU, on the 1st of January 2020, Croatia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a chance for Zagreb to strengthen its EU and diplomatic credentials. Yet, many difficult files have fallen on the Croatian presidency’s desk. These include Brexit, the EU budget, migration and asylum, and the Western Balkans.


The Croatian government has defined 4 main priority areas: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects, and an influential Europe. The official Presidency agenda goes into more detail about these overarching priority areas.


‘A Europe that develops’ entails a focus on regional development and supporting cohesion. In impending budget debates, countries like Croatia will defend cohesion funding against others seeking cuts. This heading also encompasses the European pillar of social rights, acting on negative demographic trends (a key Croatian priority), strengthening competitiveness and skills, and protecting the environment/fighting climate change.


‘A Europe that connects’ deals with European transport infrastructure, data infrastructure, establishing and integrating the energy market, and building stronger connections between European citizens through mobility, cultural heritage and dialogue with young people. These subheadings include some controversial and complex files such as advancing standards for new Artificial Intelligence technologies and increasing energy security. The former will have to be balanced against European technological competitiveness. The latter, largely, involves reducing dependence on Russian gas.


Russian power politics, based on being an essential energy supplier in Europe, have particular geopolitical importance for Croatia. Russia values influence over other countries, and eyes Croatia to have access to the Adriatic Sea. Croatia has European Commission funded Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals as an alternative form of gas provision. As of now, these are not commercially viable (LNG imported from overseas is more expensive than Russian gas) and so their full capacity is not being used.


The energy question could be a springboard for discussing renewables and would provide the Commission with an opportunity to exercise its ‘geopolitical’ credentials.


‘A Europe that protects’ also has the potential to be a controversial priority area. Croatian civil society has raised concerns that the Presidency has classed migration and refugees under this heading. Doing so suggests that people seeking sanctuary are a threat to the European Union. This heading also includes counter-terrorism measures online, the rule of law, democratic principles and fundamental values, and combatting intolerance and disinformation. The counter-terrorism proposals have raised concerns among civil society activists. They fear the use of upload filters and false-positive deletions of legitimate content.


The Croatian presidency’s aim to reform the Common European Asylum System is ambitious. It was impossible to find an agreement over the last few years. Croatia itself faces accusations of violating migrants’ rights. Allegedly, it used illegal and violent pushbacks to Bosnia, in the service of its key goal to join Schengen.
Finally, ‘an influential Europe’ involves upholding multilateralism and the rules-based global order, international development policy, crisis response capacity, and the European future of the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans and enlargement is the biggest challenge, bar the EU budget, facing Croatia’s presidency. Most of these countries (apart from Albania) recently used to be part of Yugoslavia alongside Croatia. They now look to the Croatian presidency to speed up the enlargement process. The European future of the Western Balkans was put at risk by the French veto, in an attempt to refocus the EU’s efforts on internal reforms. Zagreb will need strong diplomatic skills to progress reform files while keeping enlargement at the top of the EU’s agenda. The EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May will have symbolic value as the 20th anniversary of the initial Zagreb Summit. This will not be enough. To hold value for the people of the Western Balkans, the EU must commit to and follow through on accession within the next decade.


Overall, Croatia’s programme for the Council of the European Union presidency is rather ambitious. The presidency holds an opportunity for the country to show diplomatic skill and increase its value as a partner in the EU. There is also a risk of failure to carry out such an ambitious programme. The twin challenges of internal divisions and geopolitical developments are not unique to the Croatian presidency. However, the experience of negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire.

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