Eurobarometer recently published a survey that once again showed that there is a serious problem of discrimination across Europe. One in six people said they had personally experienced discrimination in the past year; 58% of Europeans considered that prejudice in relation to age was widespread in their country, while 53% mentioned disability.
For those who fail to be moved by statistics, consider this: in 2009 alone, we saw Roma communities being shot at in Hungary, stoned in Ireland and evicted by force in Italy; and we saw Lithuania's parliament ‘protecting' its minors by adopting a law that bans public information about homosexuality, putting homosexuality on a par with images of mutilated bodies or physical violence.
Though such episodes are disturbing, non-governmental organisations have until now felt that some progress was being made on the EU level. Fighting discrimination has been one of the few areas of social policy about which the EU could be proud: were it not for EU instruments such as the race and employment directives, there would still be no protection in most member states today.
But race and employment cover only some aspects of discrimination. That is why, in July 2008, the European Commission proposed a new anti-discrimination directive that, if passed, would give all citizens basic protection in other major areas of life, such as housing, education and healthcare.
The directive has the support of the European Parliament, but, regrettably, is stalled in the Council of Ministers, with countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Poland expressing all sorts of reservations and doubts. Surprised? So are we.
The directive is by no means revolutionary. It only seeks to ensure a very basic principle of democracies: equality before the law. What it does is to recognise what we all know – that discrimination goes beyond race and gender and affects areas of life outside the workplace. Every day, across Europe, prejudices on the grounds of disability, age, sexual orientation or religion put people in situations in which schools turn down their children, apartments are suddenly no longer for rent and medical consultations become a challenge. With the new anti-discrimination directive, these citizens would be able to complain and receive compensation.
Money, however, is a sticking-point. Member states are worried about the cost of compensation and of removing barriers for disabled people, for example. Naturally, these countries claim to be extremely committed to fighting discrimination; it's just that the financial crisis does not permit such spending. Even if sincere, that is an argument in support of a false economy: the social and economic costs of exclusion are far greater.
Some countries, such as Germany, say that their national legislation on discrimination is enough. Even if that were the case, why should Germany prevent other Europeans from enjoying the same protection as its citizens?
The reality is that even countries usually associated with good practice do not have legislation of the standard offered by the directive. Take the Netherlands, where anti-discrimination legislation does not cover age discrimination outside the workplace. Or Denmark, which lacks legislation against discrimination based on sexual orientation, religion, disability and age that affects access to social security, healthcare and education.
The Swedish presidency of the EU, once a key proponent of this directive, seems to have lost its grip on the process. The issue has not made it onto the agenda of any meeting of EU ministers and it was included in this week's equality summit in Stockholm only after pressure from civil society.
It is not too late, though, for Sweden to stop member states from endlessly delaying the directive's adoption and to prevent their attempts to water down its provisions. These are old tactics that, if successful, would amount to killing off the anti-discrimination directive. If that happens, another piece of Europe's credibility will have crumbled.
Nicolas Beger is the director of Amnesty International's EU office.