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.


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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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Accession is a two-way street

  • June 2018
  • Natalia Domingo

Accession is a two-way street

What behaviourist B. F. Skinner can teach us about the EU’s Accession Procedures with Albania

I can thank psychological theory for shaping my dog into an obedient animal: if he pees in the house, he gets a smack on the nose; if he pees outside, he gets a treat. As a result, he has learned to pee outside, rather than inside, with the understanding that he will be rewarded or punished for certain behaviors. This method of learning is called operant conditioning which was coined by behaviorist B. F. Skinner. The method connects the reoccurrence of particular behaviors with reinforcements through rewards or consequences. A reinforcement in the form of rewards, also called “positive reinforcers”, are favorable outcomes that can strengthen or increase the reoccurrence of a behavior. Conversely, reinforcement in the form of punishments, also called “positive punishment”, are unfavorable outcomes that can decrease the reoccurrence of a behavior. This behavioral model can provide the EU with deeper considerations in moving forward with Albania’s accession negotiations.


Albania submitted a formal application for EU membership in 2009, with the European Commission declaring that Albania would have to fulfill particular requirements to fit membership criteria. Due to substantial improvements, Albania was provided candidate status in 2014. Albania continues to be monitored based on five major priorities, as noted by the 2018 Commission Report on Albania. The first is that Albania reforms its public administration by enhancing professionalism and decreasing politicization in its practices. The second priority is the reinforcement of an independent, efficient and accountable judiciary. The third priority is that Albania continues efforts in fighting corruption, including the establishment of a track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. The fourth priority is to continue fighting organized crime, including the establishment of a solid track record of proactive investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. The last priority is taking effective measures to reinforce the protection of human rights, including those of minorities such as the Roma, and implement anti-discrimination policies and property rights.


While Albania has displayed great strides, the opening of negotiations is likely to be vetoed by the Netherlands in the upcoming EU Summit, after the Dutch Parliament condemned such actions. The parties Democrats 66 (D66) and GroenLinks showed support for initiating accession talks with Albania and Macedonia due to clear trends in its improvements and prospects for fulfilling all requirements. However, a number of parliamentary factions, such as People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Christian Democrat (CU), Party for Freedom (PVV), Communist Party (SP), and 50Plus have voted against it, expressing concerns of continued corruption. CDA MEP Martijn Van Helvert expressed that “there is progress in Albania, for example, in reforming the judiciary. Judges are, for example screened. But of the 800 judges only ten have been tested. Then you cannot say: the country is ready for negotiations on accession.”


While there remains room for improvement, Albania’s political willpower in pursuing intractable judiciary reform has displayed a great level of commitment and should not go unnoticed. Some reforms include measures to reduce the influence of the parliament and executive on the judiciary; measures to increase the independence and effectiveness of the High Court, the Constitutional High Court, and the High Council of Justice and Prosecution system; measures to increase accountability of judges and prosecutors by setting up a new High Judicial Council, a High Prosecutorial Council, and a High Justice inspector; as well as measures to increase justice efficiency and access to justice. While some member-states have expressed concern with the prospect for corruption, it should be taken into consideration that these sort of judicial reforms can have a positive spillover effect to other key priorities, such as in the fight against corruption.


According to the report, there has been an increase in the number of corruption cases referred, as well as the number of cases sent to the court. First and second instance convictions for junior or middle-ranking officials has consistently increased, and the opening of cases against high-level state officials has also begun to increase. Although convictions of high-state officials are moving at a much slower pace, trust for the country’s rule of law is growing stronger and people are more willing to seek access to the courts when they otherwise would not have.


Unfortunately, despite these substantial reforms, the EU has failed to show any political commitment to Albania and this may lead to unfavorable results for the Union. Referring back to B. F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning” theory, “positive reinforcements” can help increase the reoccurrence of a particular behavior—in this case, further pursuing accession negotiations as a result of Albania’s reforms. But failing to reciprocate may act as a “positive punishment”, creating frustration, halting reform efforts, or worst case scenario, causing a back-track in reforms. This does not necessarily mean that Albania was only willing to make such changes in the case that EU membership was a possibility—further strengthening the idea that EU membership only dresses illiberal countries in democrats’ clothes.  But there are actors willing to fill the gap left by the EU’s lack of commitment to the country, and more particularly, the region. For example, Russia or Turkey, or even internal actors within the Balkans who would like to stop the progression of these reforms. Therefore, it is in the EU’s best interests to provide an unambiguous assurance that if Albania fulfills the conditions set for it, the EU will reciprocate as agreed.


For those who are worried that Albania has not completely fulfilled the criteria, opening negotiations does not necessarily mean explicitly determining an official date for accession. Rather, opening negotiations can show that the EU is now willing to take more steps towards determining an accession date, therefore acting as a “positive reinforcer” and influencing Albania to continue pursuing these reforms. This can set a precedent for the other Balkan states, who are moving at a slower pace, that greater reforms can lead to more favorable results. As well, if everything proves to be successful, the reforms made by Albania can act as a model for other Balkan states’ reform efforts.


Overall, achieving these sort of developments in the Western Balkans is not just in the interest of Balkan states to achieve membership in the EU, but also for the European Union to spread European values in the region. The integration of the Western Balkan states into the EU can allow for the development of their economies and societies, which will lead to long-term peace and prosperity. As Frederica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU’s Foreign Affairs, stated: “It is the first wave of integration in the European Union that goes back to the DNA of the history of the Union—peace and reconciliation. It is not just about economy, it is not just about security, it is not about spheres of influence, it is about bringing and consolidating peace and reconciliation in a region.”


Failing to show for its political commitments will not only harm its interests in the Western Balkans, but it will also harm its credibility by resembling a failure to collectively deliver on its promises. The Western Balkans, and particularly, Albania’s, consistent commitment to establishing membership can help lift up the Union at a time when euro-sceptic parties are on the rise—but the EU must give back. When asked about how Brexit affected Albania’s accession, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama answered: “You know, when a person wants to get married, they don’t understand those who want to get a divorce.” Showing a desire for this sort of sentiment can help increase the reoccurrence of it, and as Mogherini expressed about Albania, “we need that kind of energy, this pro-European energy inside the Union exactly to remind ourselves what it is about.”

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To be or not to be (a globalist)

  • January 2018
  • Andrea Lotesoriere

To be or not to be (a globalist)

Davos: Rhetoric or substance?

In the Swiss Alps, the world’s elite gathers to discuss the future of the global economy, the challenges that the planet is facing and to find shared solutions through dialogue.

Just before his arrival, US President Donald Trump announced his decision to impose tariffs on Korean washing machine and Chinese solar powered cells. This news came to disrupt the players gathered in the “den of capitalism”, but it wasn’t out of the blue. Several weeks before this decision, it was already known that Trump’s strategy was to fulfill some of the promises of his “America First” campaign and what better time, than after having resolved the Government shut-down and successfully passed the new tax reform. On top of this, the American administration has to decide the fate of the 300% tariffs on Canadian Bombardier promised by Trump in November, which would cause a huge rift in the special relationship between the UK and the US and cost Northern Ireland the thousands of jobs of Bombardier’ plant in Belfast.

The rest of the world promptly condemned these decisions, with China branding it an “overreaction” and other world leaders promptly expressing their disappointment at the decision. In particular, Chancellor Angela Merkel called protectionism a mistake from the past which must not be repeated, while Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed their hopes for a better, more harmonized solution than protectionism.

These choral responses were accompanied by as many calls for a fairer and better-organized globalization, one which would take care of the “losers” of the globalized world and counter the “poison” of populism. Macron, in an hour-long speech, celebrated his reforms process and underlined the importance of education to form the citizen and worker of the future as well as the importance of other factors, other than pure economic growth when judging the performances of a country. In particular he addressed the audience by stating that “We cannot end up in a world with a cosmopolitan digital elite and an army of discontented workers. Today we must answer positively and decisively the call for a stronger Europe. Our history and roots are not synonymous with protectionism.”

Nevertheless, once again, the United States closing on themselves will leave more space for regional and continental actors to shape their immediate neighborhood to their needs. If it’s true that the USA is a shrinking hyper-power, then it’s up to the superpowers to step-up their game and reach solutions that benefit as many people as possible. Europe and China have a unique opportunity to reposition themselves as independent actors capable of shaping an alternative to a globalized world that benefits only the very richest.

As Prime Minister Gentiloni said “inequality is still rising, reaching intolerable levels, even as growth increases” which means responses like the one the Trump administration are giving are not going to be the exception but the norm.

To avoid “the mistakes of the past” the people must see decisive action behind the rhetorics in Davos. Whether or not Trump’s solution is good for the world or the United States itself, is irrelevant to an electorate betrayed by a decade of economic and social crisis. It is not enough to simply hope for a better future. In order to regain the confidence in globalization, nations leaders (especially in the West) must act decisively to re-conquer the lost hope, much like a lover’s grand gesture after a bad break-up.

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