Lithuania and the EU's blind spot on gay rights
On 1 July, Lithuania took over the EU Presidency.
Why does the EU have a strategy for protecting gay people abroad, but not at home? (Photo: compscigrad)
The EU is one of the leading voices on LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) equality, but Lithuania is way out of tune.
Vilnius' EU presidency began with a controversy on LGBTI issues when its head of state, Dalia Grybauskaite, faced tough questions from MEPs and media on Baltic Pride.
Its EU chairmanship is a chance for Lithuania to take concrete steps to tackle discrimination.
Its presidency is also an opportunity for the EU to set the record straight - its LGBTI policies have so far been piecemeal, have lacked consistency.
Why is Lithuania such a challenge when it comes to LGBTI rights, or, to put it another way, human rights?
The Baltic Pride March for Equality is scheduled to take place on 27 July on Vilnius' main avenue.
But municipal chiefs have said organisers cannot do it here despite two favourable court judgements (the city is appealing the latest verdict).
Baltic Pride is just one of many LGBTI problems in Lithuania.
According to the 2013 Rainbow Europe Index, it is among the worst in the EU in terms of laws and policies to protect LGBTI people. It has in just 21 percent of the - necessary - measures in place.
The real life situation is equally bleak.
The EU's Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna, in its first-ever survey on the subject this year, said 61 percent of LGBTI people in Lithuania feel discriminated against or harassed over their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is the highest rate in the EU.
Meanwhile, some recent legislative proposals in Lithuania threaten the basic principles on which the EU is founded.
Bills put to the Seimas (parliament) include a ban on gender reassignment and an amendment to a Criminal Law article on slander, saying that criticism of homosexuality and claims that homosexuals should change their sexual orientation should not be construed as discrimination or hate speech.
They also include proposals for a new administrative liability for "public denigration of constitutional moral values and of constitutional fundamentals of the family life" and for "organisation of public events contravening public morality."
Lithuania, as the EU chairman, should be a leading light on EU values.
The least it could do is to let Baltic Pride go ahead as planned and to protect the people who take part.
It should also reverse the Seimas trend and, indeed, introduce pro-LGBTI legislation to improve its shameful 21 percent score.
But reforms on paper are not enough.
In order to cultivate progressive views in society, it should formulate a political strategy for inclusion of LGBTI communities in public life.
What can the EU do to help?
In an unprecedented statement, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has already made it clear that Brussels is closely monitoring the situation in Lithuania.
Non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is a pillar of EU law since 1997. It is prohibited under both the EU Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Gender identity does not yet enjoy the same level of protection, but the issue is gaining recognition.
What remains unclear is: Which legal instruments can EU institutions turn to when a member state violates LGBTI rights?
There is no single document laying out the EU strategy on this problem.
Just last month, the EU adopted comprehensive and practical guidelines for its overseas missions on how to protect the human rights of LGBTI people in third countries.
The guidelines clearly refer to freedom of assembly "without excessive political and administrative obstacles” and to police protection in the event of "public hostility."
It is ironic - if not irrational - that there is no similar policy for upholding EU Treaty values in this area in member states.
The Lithuanian moment and the new foreign policy guidelines cry out for such a document. EuropeanObserver