Published June 28, 2011
Three topics—fisheries, agriculture and currency—have been prominent in the Icelandic debate on the European Union since the country applied for EU membership in July of 2009. The discourse has been dominated by big words, and often goes to extremes, but since an accession agreement has yet to be finalised, most statements remain purely speculative.
PREREQUISITES FOR AN ENLIGHTENED DEBATE
On Iceland’s behalf, the application work is in the hands of a negotiation committee, government officials and ten negotiation teams. A so-called ‘screening process’ (a comparison of Icelandic and EU law, made to determine what subjects to negotiate on), will soon be concluded. The EU has therefore proposed the beginning of actual negotiations this June 17 (incidentally, Iceland’s Independence Day), aiming to start with issues like competition policy, media, research, education and culture. After finishing these chapters, the most difficult issues still await the parties, which means that an enlightened debate on the pros and cons of a membership agreement will have to wait.
HUMAN RIGHTS AN OTHER INVISIBLE MATTERS
Questions about fisheries, agriculture and currency are complex and controversial, as they deal with important economic interests. One can therefore easily understand why other issues have received little or no attention, regrettable as it is. In hope of balancing the debate a little, this article thus deals with other aspects of European co-operation and shifts the focus towards the issue of human rights. It zooms in on the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT) and looks at how the application process is already affecting NGOs like Samtökin ’78—the Icelandic Queer Organization.
To join the European Union, a country needs to meet certain economic and political conditions, the so-called Copenhagen criteria. These terms include stability of democratic institutions, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. The Justice and Home Affairs negotiation team oversees the chapter on judiciary and fundamental rights, which includes human rights. Screening of the chapter was concluded in February this year and no questions were raised about exemptions, specially tailored solutions or adjustments, as the parties did not see any troubles in closing it. In fact, EU praised the protection of human rights in Iceland and indicated that it didn’t see any impending problems.
ALARMING RISE OF EXTREMISM IN EUROPE
Compared to Iceland, the state of LGBT rights in many European countries is in a pretty bad shape. This has caused great concerns and provoked reactions within various EU institutions. The European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights is an example of how members of the parliament have reacted. The group provides parliament members with an informal forum to work for LGBT rights across national borders and party lines and currently engages 115 MEPs out of 735. A group meeting in early April revealed that despite some progress in recent years things have generally been moving in the wrong direction. Growing extremism, accompanied by prejudice and hatred towards LGBT people, has found its way into the mainstream discourse and continues to shape discriminating laws and practices of government institutions. This has recently been the case in countries like Slovakia, Lithuania and Hungary, to name but a few.
One of the many roles of NGOs like Samtökin ’78 is to monitor authorities in order to keep some politicians from forgetting their rosy promises and others from implementing policies that violate human rights. In a globalised world states are increasingly dependent on each other, as well as on other agents. Problems are rarely limited to individual countries and need to be dealt with at a supranational level. This applies to governments and NGOs alike. LGBT organisations have long co-operated within the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). The European branch, ILGA-Europe, was established in 1996 and has about 300 member organisations in 40 European countries.
ILGA-Europe puts much effort into strengthening the so-called EU-Network, the purpose of which is to harmonize policies and actions and strengthen capacities to influence various EU institutions. It has now invited Samtökin ‘78 to participate in this co-operation and offers financial help to meet travel expenses, which is of great importance for a small volunteer based organisation on the outskirts of Europe. ILGA-Europe’s increased interest in Iceland is not surprising, as it is directly linked with the country’s growing involvement in European affairs through the EU application.
JOINING, OR NOT?
Faced with the poor state of LGBT rights in many countries, and noting the fact that discriminatory national law often violates overriding European law, ILGA-Europe is now discussing the possibility of strategic litigations before European courts. It has also started the work on an ‘Annual report on the situation of LGBT people in Europe’ and called for contributions from its member organisations. Apart from this, ILGA-Europe is currently in dialogue with EU institutions about mutual recognition of same-sex marriages, partnerships or civil unions. Such pan-European recognition would be extremely important for same sex couples and their families, but meets staunch opposition of various groups that lobby against LGBT rights in Brussels.
Iceland’s EU application has already affected Samtökin ’78 by broadening and deepening the current co-operation with ILGA-Europe and sister organisations throughout the continent. This has created possibilities for a dynamic and interactive participation with the sharing of experiences, mutual support, learning and engagement of local members, and will undoubtedly benefit the organisation in the long run. Icelandic LGBT citizens have long enjoyed more civil rights than many of their neighbours, something that is reflected in a strong legal framework. The situation might not be perfect, and even though prejudices and stereotypes are very much alive and kicking in Iceland, not least of which can be found in the media, we must not forget that things are still much better than in many other European countries. Iceland has a lot to offer in these matters, but can also learn a great deal from others. All things considered, joining the Queeropean Union in order to pursue these goals might not be such a bad idea.
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