By Andrew Willis
Gay rights organisations openly acknowledge the crucial role played by European institutions in securing recent advances in the area, but concerns over top-down decision making and rising bureaucracy tell a more nuanced backstory.
Delegates at the 14th ILGA-Europe annual conference in The Hague on Thursday (28 October) also expressed fears over growing social conservatism in a post-recession Europe, and pointed to the recent Roma debacle as highlighting divergences between EU legislation and implementation on the ground.
ILGA co-chairs Linda Freimane and Martin Christensen were speaking at the body's 14th annual meeting in The Hague.
"This year's pride marches have been success stories ... despite confrontations," said Linda Freimane, co-chair of the international umbrella group which represents over 300 lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex organisations.
A Council of Europe recommendation agreed in March was also widely heralded as an important new tool for activists fighting discrimination linked to sexual orientation or gender identity.
The European Court of Human Rights referred to the non-binding text in a landmark decision this October when it ruled against Moscow's decision to ban gay pride marches in recent years.
"These strong statements give ILGA a great help at national level," said Martin Christensen, also an ILGA co-chair.
Hopes have not died out for the currently-stalled EU equal treatment directive, and outspoken comments by EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding have contributed to the optimism.
"We have a very strong commissioner who speaks her mind," said the secretary of the European Women's Lobby, Myria Vassiliadou. "Now we need to help her to speak our mind."
European Commission official Detlev Boeing outlined how EU enlargement criteria where helping to promote gay rights in countries hoping to join the Union, but conceded there are still "serious shortcomings" on implementation.
The commission is set to issue progress reports for EU candidate countries Turkey, Croatia, Iceland and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia next month, together with EU hopefuls Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. The commission will also issue two opinions on Albania and Montenegro.
Weakening at the grassroots level?
Privately a number of delegates registered concerns related to the growing role played by European institutions in promoting gay rights however.
"The EU is moving into the old role of NGOs and pushing the agenda," one gay-rights activist told this website in the conference margins. "If we don't follow their agenda funding can be cut."
A second activist agreed that, while largely positive, EU funding also had its downsides. "The increased bureaucracy is killing some grassroots activity. It takes up a huge amount of time," they said.
A third NGO worker shared similar feelings, also wishing to remain anonymous due to sensitivities in the area. "It is important to work at the EU level. For example the commission enlargement progress reports have been very important for positive change in Croatia," they said.
"But it is also important that NGOs know what they want and then try to influence the commission. Sometimes the reverse happens and this is bad," they added.
An EU source denied there was an active attempt by Brussels to dictate gay-rights policy. "We aim to put pressure on states, not NGOs. There may be internal decisions by rights groups to seeking funding, but we have no hidden agenda to dominate policy," they said.