Can the EU accession process improve LGBT+ rights in candidate countries?

Activists from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are hopeful that the EU accession process will improve LBGT+ rights in their countries, and are calling on the EU itself to make sure it delivers on its promises. 

LGBT+ activists from European Union hopefuls Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia met with EU representatives in Brussels last week to explain the serious challenges facing LGBT+ people in their countries, and to urge European institutions and member states to live up to the hope that they have given in granting all three countries prospects of becoming members of the EU. 

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has made enlargement a priority in its eastern neighbourhood region, recently opening the path for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to join the EU. 

Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status by the European Council in June 2022, and just last month the European Commission advised that Georgia should also receive candidate status at the upcoming December Council—where Ukraine and Moldova may be given the green light to start accession negotiations.

The prospect of joining the EU is always an important motivation for governments to make reforms on advancement of rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights. It is especially important in this context that the EU insists that the protection of LGBT+ people’s human rights are a core part of those requirements, as governments often fall behind the requirements.  

Recommendations from the EU regarding the human rights of LGBT+ people are key tools supporting LGBT+ organisations to engage with their governments and hold them accountable to the commitments made. 

In all three countries, problems persist 

In all three EU hopefuls hate crime and hate speech against LGBT+ people remains a serious issue. While both Moldova and Georgia have legislation protecting against hate crime on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, hate crimes are consistently not registered and prosecuted.  

Ukraine still needs to adopt such legislation, which is currently being debated in parliament. Despite the international obligations of these countries to provide a legal framework for the recognition of same-sex couples, none of them have adopted such legislation.  

The inequality this creates is particularly highlighted in Ukraine at this time, where the lack of rights of same-sex partners of soldiers wounded or killed are laid bare. International standards as regards legal gender recognition are that the procedure should be quick, transparent and accessible without abusive requirements. Currently all three countries fail to live up to this for different reasons. 

According to Rina Rybalko from Gender Stream, a Ukrainian LGBT+ organisation, “We believe that Ukraine being an EU candidate country shows bilateral willingness to cooperate and integrate, especially in terms of common values, human rights standards and opportunities. This is an important step towards strengthening democratic values and supporting civil society in Ukraine, where freedom, diversity and human rights are a priority.” 

Meanwhile, the LGBT+ community in Moldova faces risks due to growing anti-LGBTI narratives promoted by pro-Russian forces,” says Leo Zbancă from GENDERDOC-M.  

“We see Moldova’s move to join the EU as vital for protecting LGBT+ rights and ensuring the dignity and safety of the community,” he says. 

It’s a slightly different story in Georgia, where some activists are concerned at the current path taken by the country’s government. According to Mariam Kvaratskhelia from Tbilisi Pride, “Georgia should be granted candidate status and should move further on its EU integration path without sacrificing LGBT+ rights and equality, which is unfortunately what the government is currently doing.” 

What the prospect of accession can do 

Nevertheless, the accession process comes with hope in candidate countries that the prospect of EU membership will help secure a better life for LGBT+ people through the implementation of EU law and standards. However, the road to EU accession can be long, and hope and ambition can turn into disillusionment and disengagement if reforms are not seen through and the efforts of people and governments are not supported and awarded by the EU. 

Danijel Kalezić, executive co-director at ERA in Montenegro, which became a candidate country in 2010, says that in the last 15 years the Western Balkans saw how the EU enlargement process can contribute to the legal protection and advancement of human rights for LGBT+ communities.  

“Unfortunately, we have also seen how a lack of direct and visible political support from the EU to grassroots movements in crucial moments can result in providing a space for anti-democratic movements to stop progress achieved and push the backsliding that is currently ongoing in our region,” he adds. 

The meetings between activists and EU representatives in Brussels last week were facilitated by ILGA-Europe, the largest umbrella organisation for the LGBT+ movement in Europe. According to its advocacy director, Katrin Hugendubel, “These meetings are essential because we need to ensure that all EU institutions engaged in the enlargement process understand what is at stake —the huge potential to work for better respect of LGBT+ people’s human rights through the process, but also the big risk of backlash in case the EU is not following through the accession promises. 

“We see in the Western Balkans after years of active engagement on advancing human rights and fulfilling accession conditions, people are now disillusioned and the influence and leverage of the EU is quickly diminishing. Tensions in the region are high and the influence of other global forces is very real and worrying.  

“In Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, people want to move towards the EU and democratic reforms are undertaken to do so. The EU needs to support these efforts and stand clear on its promise of accession.” 

Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.

You can contribute here. Thank you.

emerging europe support independent journalism