Ahead of the EU referendum LME is hosting a series of joint events with other socialist societies to highlight the benefits of our EU membership to different communities and causes championed across the Labour and trade union movement.
In February we held an event with LGBT Labour in Liverpool to look at the EU’s role in championing equality for LGBTI people and the work left to be done. We were delighted to be joined by North West Labour MEP and member of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup Theresa Griffin and Bea Tilanus from the Dutch Labour Party and the board of Rainbow Rose – the pan-European LGBTI campaign group within the Party of European Socialists. Here are my remarks from that event:
Support for LGBTI rights at the EU level stretches back to my first year on this earth in 1984 when the European Parliament supported an end to discrimination of homosexuals in employment. Remember this was a time when in the UK we didn’t have an equal age of consent, you could (and would) be fired for being gay, there was no legal recognition for trans people, same-sex couples couldn’t adopt or enter into a civil partnership… The list goes on.
The European Parliament has been a staunch ally of the LGBTI community ever since, with pro-equality reports and resolutions receiving strong support across party groups, but particularly from the group of socialists and social democrats which our Labour MEPs sit in.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Lord Michael Cashman. In his years as an MEP he did a tremendous amount of work on these issues, both at home and abroad. His staunch support for LGBTI communities in countries which even today don’t have anything close to the rights we now enjoy here is still remembered warmly.
The consistent support for equality for LGBTI people by the EU’s directly elected chamber has led to significant progress on these issues in the last 15 years.
– The ability to tackle discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation was laid down as an EU competence in the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999 which led to anti-discrimination legislation being passed a couple of years later – the first action on LGBTI equality across countries which now protects 500 million European citizens from being sacked for their sexuality. Former British Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy took a lead in the European Parliament on several elements of the anti-discrimination package.
– The EU free movement directive means that if you’re married in one Member State, that marriage has to be recognised in other states. This applies to same-sex marriages, even in countries where they’re not legal.
– The European Court of Justice – the EU’s version of the Supreme Court – has ruled that if you get a civil partnership you’re entitled to exactly the same benefits a straight couple receive when they get married.
– The Victims of Crime Directive when fully enacted this year will provide for better identification of victims of all crimes including LGBTI hate crimes.
The EU also puts its money where it’s mouth is – up to 20% of European Social Funds can be used by Member States to combat discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The UK alone is getting £7bn in ESF funding from 2014 to 2020 – across the whole EU it is a lot of money.
Specific to our cause, the EU’s Rights, Equality & Citizenship Programme has a €320m budget which funds LGBTI activism and research and projects to combat discrimination. For example, it provides funds for LGBTI NGOs working against homophobic and transphobic violence and lobbying for progressive social change in the Western Balkans and Turkey. I met these groups and this support is vital to their cause.
So what’s next? We need more co-ordinated action to tackle hate crime, we urgently need progress to deliver an EU-wide Equal Treatment Directive to tackle discrimination not just in employment but also in goods and services – protection we enjoy in the UK but many fellow EU citizens do not – better enforcement of existing European law, particularly on asylum and migration issues, and a strong and well resourced Europe-wide campaign to end homophobic and transphobic bullying in education and share best practice across our schools.
Some might ask why we should bother with the EU when we already have most of these rights at home thanks to the last Labour government and existing European legislation. What do we need the EU for? Our movement was founded to champion equality and social justice for all – not just for ourselves. The principle of solidarity means we socialists and social democrats who believe in equality should not stop fighting until everyone is equal – no matter where they live. Thousands of LGBTI people don’t March at Pride events across the country every year just for themselves, but for the wider LGBTI community at home and abroad.
The EU has a role to play within its borders and externally through aid and trade relationships to champion equality for all citizens. Britain has played a leading role in championing equality – in the European Parliament, in the Council and through our embassies – our voice would be missed. And our LGBTI citizens here at home would lose an important ally.
Kevin Peel is a Councillor for Manchester City Centre, LGBT Labour’s International Officer and Executive Member of the Labour Movement for Europe. He Tweets @kevpeel