EU LGBTIQ Equality Strategy: Empowering civil society in challenging times

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Directory joins the plenary discussion on the 'EU LGBTIQ Equality Strategy: Empowering civil society in challenging times' during the World Pride Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen on 19 August 2021.

Good afternoon.

It's a really great pleasure to be here with you, and I'm so grateful for the invitation to speak.

I'm really glad that there's an event at Pride focusing on civil society.

We're so busy and rightly preoccupied with all the outrages that you've already heard about, including from previous speakers. There's a danger that we will overlook you, we will overlook civil society that brings about all the changes.

There's the old Latin tag, quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who minds the minders? I think, in a way, this session focuses on that. You don't need to be told, but let me say it anyway, that without civil society we have no hope.

I've been here since Monday night and I've been listening all week. I have heard about so many different contexts and sectors where civil society is engaged and making a difference.

The breadth is astonishing, as are all of the pressures and challenges in the Covid period, which has meant that some groups have had to reimagine themselves from the ground up, to be relevant and even just to survive during that period, but the breadth of engagement is truly remarkable.

But for all the achievements and for all the fantastic outcomes, we have to acknowledge that civil society, including LGBTIQ civil society, is under threat. It's under pressure in many places.

We at the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU are closely following the phenomenon of the threat of the shrinking space for civil society, including LGBTI civil society.

We do this, for example, through our periodic surveys on what it's like to be LGBTI in the European Union. Many of you know this survey. It's the largest survey of its kind in the world. We published the most recent edition last year with 140 000 respondents. Through that, we got stories of pressures.

We also, every year, publish a health check of the state of all civil society inside the EU. We systematically identify the pressure points and how we can engage them. Through the survey work and through this annual information gathering, we've identified four foundational pressure points for civil society, and I venture to suggest, also including LGBTI civil society.

The first of these is financial. I don't need to say much about that. It's an endless struggle to find the money to survive and to negotiate what in many countries are very oppressive regimes, which sometimes seem to be more about restricting rather than enabling civil society. Whether that is about where you get your money from, or such issues as your tax-free status. So, financial pressure: a big issue.

A second, and closely related pressure, is regulatory pressure. The rules under which civil society can operate can be overwhelming in many places. It's not just the regulations themselves, but as I've heard this week from some of you, it's about the unfair way in which the regulations are policed. One group can get away with never filling in the forms, and an LGBTI group can be closed down if it's an hour late, as one person said to me yesterday.

A third pressure, which we find right across all activism, has to do with access. Your advocacy is only as good as the ear to which you can deliver your message. Long before Covid, there have been real problems about a lack of access to the people who make the decisions, make policies, or a lack of meaningful consultation, or a lack of feedback on what's happened with your input.

Fourth, and finally, and I've left this to last for a reason, there's the issue of danger to people and to property. I've left it to last for a reason, because I've heard so many stories this week of that dimension of pressure confronted by LGBTI groups. I've heard stories of physical attacks. I've heard stories of utterly exhausting hate speech attacks on social media, of attacks on property and indeed, as I said earlier, of oppressively applied regulation. I've heard stories of emigration, where people just couldn't take it anymore, of extraordinary stress and of suicide. So, that fourth dimension of the pressure to civil society of direct attack on people is one of high relevance in our gathering.

And, all the indicators tell us that it's getting worse.

So, what can we do?

Well, today the setting and the framing for this event is the new LGBTI strategy of the European Union. I want to suggest to you that this strategy, if it's delivered, if it's applied, if it comes to life, can be a game changer inside the EU and for what the EU does beyond its own frontiers.

I welcome, by the way, very much the extent to which the Commission strategy relies on the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency. It has validated so much of the effort we've put in the surveys and the other research over the years. This strategy – and I encourage you all to please go and read it – categorises the action areas in four pillars.

The first is obviously tackling discrimination.

The second, quite correctly, and maybe it should be the first, is ensuring safety.

The third is building an inclusive society, and this matters on a continent that's riddled with homophobia.

Then fourth and finally, it's about the championing of equality around the world.

Now within those four frames, I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement of the role of civil society. The authors of this strategy identified the centrality of civil society and the need to support and empower civil society. There's a specific mention of the new funding streams.

There is a specific commitment by the European Union to create structured dialogue spaces, so that we can all have the necessary conversations. I spoke earlier of problems of access, and this is an imaginative response to that concern in an EU setting.

Within that, again, I appreciate that there's an explicit, specific reference to access to and dialogue with young people, because we know from our work at the Fundamental Rights Agency, across issue after issue after issue, that young people are frustrated. They say that they're not being listened to, there aren't the spaces where they can express their views, and they're not getting any sense that they're being taken seriously.

Going forward then, working from the existence of the strategy, obviously the key ambition has to be to deliver it.

I want to suggest here today that delivering this strategy will fail if it's seen as some kind of exclusive responsibility of the EU. It won't work.

This strategy is an invitation to collaboration. It's an invitation for everybody who cares passionately about these issues, to come together in smart, new alliances, smart new ways of pulling together to achieve the outcome.

It's activists, it's the NGOs, it's the rest of civil society, together with the institutions of the EU, the Commission, the Parliament, the Council, together with governments, together, indeed, with the other champions of rights in our societies, including the Council of Europe.

We must all come together if we are to meaningfully deliver our strategy.

For all of that, I commit to you today that the Fundamental Rights Agency will play its part.

For instance, we commit to repeating our survey of the experience of what it's like to be LGBTI in the EU. We commit to doing that every four or five years, so that you can measure change over time, and also so that we can give voice to the many thousands who choose to engage with the survey.

Second, we will continue to combat hate crime in all manner of different ways, working in particular with EU member states, setting up systems to better record hate crime, to better investigate it, to better prosecute it. We'll also draw attention to the phobias, such as homophobia, that we've repeatedly addressed in our research reports.

We did a report a few years ago on homophobia inside government services. As one person memorably said to one of our researchers: ‘Why would I report a homophobic act to a homophobe?’. So, we will continue to draw attention to issues such as this.

Then, no less importantly, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency will seek to continue to accompany you in this shared struggle. We have spaces, by the way, in which this accompanying isn't just theory and nice words, but can become concrete reality.

One is something called the Fundamental Rights Platform. It's a platform, literally, of organisations across the EU that we support and with which we engage, including to draw in information that we need to direct to the EU and the Member States.

There are 800 organisations on our platform right now. Let's make that much bigger. If you're EU-based and your organisation is not on the platform, please look at our website and consider signing up.

Finally, we will continue to offer solidarity by convening, by bringing together people for the necessary conversations.

In fact, on 11 and 12 October we will convene, in a hybrid fashion from Vienna, the 2021 Fundamental Rights Forum. This brings together thousands of activists across all the great human rights issues, to figure out new ways to fix the problems as we see them within the EU, and I want to invite you all to join us.

I can do that, because it's hybrid. Some of you may choose to register to come physically to Vienna, but far more of you, I suspect, would register to attend virtually. You're very welcome to do so. It's obviously free of charge. The more of the LGBTI community that are present in the event, the stronger its messages and its concerns can be, as we figure out smart solutions going forward.

So let me leave it there. Again, thank you very much for the invitation, I deeply appreciate it, and I wish every best wish for the continuation of Pride and for our work together as we go forward.