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The 2024 European elections: A turning point for LGBTQ rights in the EU?

Right-wing parties made electoral gains

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European Union President von der Leyen addresses the European Parliament in October 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of the European Council Press Office)

As the dust settles after the 2024 European Parliament elections, right-wing parties are gaining substantial ground and concerns about the potential impact on LGBTQ rights are growing. The projected surge in support for far-right parties, however, was not as pronounced as some had expected.

Monday morning’s estimates indicate the far-right’s presence has, however, undeniably increased. 

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) gained four seats, bringing their total to 73. The Identity and Democracy group saw a significant rise, gaining nine seats to reach 58. Together, these nationalist, anti-immigrant parties now hold around 130 seats, reflecting their growing influence. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, which clinched over 32 percent of the vote, and the Alternative for Germany securing approximately 16 percent of the vote and becoming the country’s second-largest party, ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, in particular could affect the broader political dynamics in Europe.

Despite the gains for the far-right, the mainstream conservative European People’s Party (EPP) emerged as the largest group, securing 189 seats, an increase of 13 seats. The two other centrist parties, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and Renew Europe, however, experienced losses that eroded the political center. S&D finished with 135 seats, losing four, while Renew Europe saw a significant reduction, finishing with 83 seats.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated her party’s victory and called for cooperation among centrists to ensure a “strong and effective Europe.” She emphasized the responsibility that comes with the election results, noting the need for stability amid growing support for extremist parties.

The election’s biggest losers were the Greens, who saw their support decrease by 25 percent, ending with 53 seats. The Greens, despite this setback, could still play a crucial role in supporting centrist majorities as an alternative to further-right parties.

All eyes are now on the election winners, the EPP. 

Von der Leyen has indicated her readiness to work with certain parties sitting with the hard-right ECR. Initial signals from the EPP camp, however, suggest it will stay true to its traditional allies at the center. Von der Leyen has offered to work with socialists and liberals to build a “majority in the center for a strong Europe,” underscoring the importance of maintaining a united front against extremism.

The narrow margins in the new parliament could lead to issue-by-issue coalitions, especially for sensitive issues such as those related to the European Green Deal. This limited room for maneuver could see the EPP relying on partners to its right on an ad hoc basis, including for critical decisions that include ushering in a new commission president. Von der Leyen’s future hangs in the balance as she seeks re-election. National delegations within her EPP grouping and support from lawmakers of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which clinched 24 seats, will play a crucial role in her bid to secure an absolute majority of 361 MEPs.

The implications for LGBTQ rights in Europe are significant. 

Far-right parties, known for their conservative social values, might push for policies that restrict LGBTQ rights, opposing marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, and challenging the legal recognition of gender identity and access to healthcare for transgender people. Such potential policy reversals represent a significant setback for the LGBTQ community.

The rising popularity of far-right ideologies also poses a risk of heightened discrimination and hate speech against LGBTQ people. 

Hate-motivated violence and exclusion are likely to become more prevalent, along with more frequent and aggressive hate speech targeting the LGBTQ community. Additionally, far-right parties often promote traditional gender roles and family structures, potentially undermining the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ identities. Nonbinary, transgender, and intersex people could face increased stigmatization.

The 16th annual Rainbow Map that ILGA-Europe publishes underscores the importance of legal protections for LGBTQ people. 

Authoritarian leaders across Europe continue to use the scapegoating of LGBTQ people to divide and mobilize their electorates. Several countries, however, have demonstrated robust political will to advance and protect LGBTQ rights. Some countries — Germany, Iceland, Estonia, and Greece — have made significant strides in protecting LGBTQ rights through improvements in legislation and anti-discrimination measures. Belgium, Cyprus, Norway, and Portugal have introduced bans on conversion therapy practices.

Countries such as Italy, on the other hand, show the consequences of stalling legislative protection for LGBTQ people. Moreover, EU accession countries, including Turkey and Georgia, are actively eroding human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Rainbow Map illustrates the stark differences in how European countries handle LGBTQ rights. 

While some nations are making significant progress, others are regressing, influenced by the far-right’s growing power. Germany, Iceland, Estonia, and Greece, for example, have made noteworthy improvements in their legal frameworks to protect LGBTQ people. Germany prohibited hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics, while Estonia and Greece amended their laws to allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children.

In contrast, Italy, which has dropped in the rankings due to stalling legislative protections, exemplifies the risk of complacency that many activists in Europe fear. The far-right’s influence can quickly lead to the erosion of rights if proactive measures are not taken. The situation is even more dire in EU accession countries such as Turkey and Georgia, where LGBTQ rights are actively being rolled back.

The stakes are high as Europe moves forward from these elections. 

The EU must address the rise in political hate speech and new tools of oppression that include Russia’s criminalization of the LGBTQ movement. Without strong laws and policies to protect LGBTQ people, the foundation of safety, rule of law, and democracy in Europe is at risk.

The balance of power remains delicate as the European Parliament prepares for its new term.

The first major test will be the approval of the new European Commission president, which is set for July. Von der Leyen, who narrowly won her position five years ago, will need to secure broad support among centrists while navigating the complex dynamics of the new parliament. The secret ballot process adds an additional layer of uncertainty, making her re-election far from guaranteed.

The 2024 European elections have set the stage for potentially significant changes in the legislative and social landscape of the EU. As right-wing parties gain power, the fight for LGBTQ rights becomes more crucial than ever. The next few years will be pivotal in determining whether Europe can uphold its commitment to human rights and equality or if it will see a regression influenced by nationalist, conservative ideologies.

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European Union

Gay Ukrainian man struggles to rebuild life in Berlin

Dmytro Shapoval arrived in Germany in March 2022

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Dmytro Shapoval in Berlin on April 15, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was on assignment in Berlin from April 12-15.

BERLIN — A gay Ukrainian man with HIV who fled his war-torn country more than two years ago remains in Berlin.

Dmytro Shapoval first spoke with the Washington Blade in July 2022.

He was working at an IT company’s call center and studying web and UX design in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, when Russia launched its war against his country on Feb. 24, 2022. Shapoval less than a month later swam across a river with his cat Peach and entered Poland.

He arrived in the German capital on March 19, 2022.

“I feel very secure here,” said Shapoval when he first spoke with the Blade on July 22, 2022, during a reception that took place at the end of a two-day meeting with European activists the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration organized.

Shapoval again spoke with the Blade on April 15 while he was at ORAM’s offices near Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

He said he was sleeping on a mattress on the kitchen floor of a Ukrainian friend’s apartment in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood, while looking for a more permanent place to live. 

Shapoval had just finished an IT course at a private university, but told the Blade he “was not in that headspace to study” because of the depression from which he said he suffers. Shapoval also told the Blade the German government has postponed his residency permit for a year.

“It’s challenging,” he said.

Germany has granted temporary protection to nearly 1 million Ukrainians

The German government has granted temporary protection to more than 900,000 Ukrainians since the war began. (The U.N. Refugee Agency says there are 2.2 million refugees in Germany.)

Ukrainians are able to enter Germany without a visa.

The German government offers those who have registered for residency a “basic income” that helps them pay for housing, food and other basic needs. Ukrainian refugees can also access health care, language classes, job training programs and childcare. 

Shapoval and other single Ukrainian refugees receive €563 ($609.30) a month through the program.

Shapoval told the Blade it is difficult for him to find a job because his legal status remains uncertain. He also complained about German bureaucracy, which he described as “such a hell here.”

A memorial to Ukrainians who have died during Russia’s war against their country in Berlin on April 13, 2024. The memorial was across the street from the Russian Embassy. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Shapoval’s mother remains in Dnipro, a city on the Dnipro River that is roughly 300 miles southeast of Kyiv.

He said the first year of the war was “pretty quiet” in Dnipro because it is not as big as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and other Ukrainian cities. Shapoval said the situation in Dnipro changed last fall.

Shapoval told the Blade a Russian missile hit a nine-story civilian building in the city.

“I had the worst day of my life because I knew that my mom was going to Dnipro,” he said.

Shapoval said the building the missile hit struck was close to his grandmother’s home.

“I was so horrified,” he told the Blade. “I was trying to call her to get in touch. She was not answering at all.”

Shapoval said his grandmother called him several hours after the attack. She told him the missile strike damaged the city’s communications infrastructure.

“It’s pretty horrible,” said Shapoval.

Shapoval spoke with the Blade hours before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a controversial conscription law that seeks to replenish the country’s military. Zelensky last month also enacted a statute that lowers the minimum draft age from 27 to 25.

Shapoval said he does not want to go into the military, and has thoughts that he would die in the war. Shapoval also told the Blade he does not watch news reports about Ukraine because they exacerbate his depression.

“Just seeing these buildings destroyed and sometimes (at night when) people are sleeping there, or also (seeing) news about kids being stolen into Russia and then brainwashed there in these camps … is really bad,” he said.

Dmytro Shapoval in Berlin on July 22, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘You’re a white refugee, so everything’s fine’

Shapoval noted support for Ukrainian refugees in Germany has begun to wane.

He recalled a conversation he had at a queer bookstore in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood during which someone who he described as German asked him what its like to be a refugee.

“Without even letting me answer without any space, he’s like, ‘Oh, but you’re a white refugee, so everything’s fine,'” recalled Shapoval.

Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, launched a surprise attack against Israel. 

Shapoval said the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip has pushed the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the plight of Ukrainian refugees out of the headlines. He also recalled an exchange he had with a Syrian woman with whom he had become friends in Berlin after Oct. 7.

Shapoval said she wrote in an Instagram post that “one or two years of war in Ukraine, this amount of kids died and two months of war in Palestine, this amount of kids died.”

“I’m like, what the fuck is that?” he recalled. “It’s not a competition of dead babies.”

“The fact you put two in comparison already makes one side less valuable and one side more valuable, but it’s also different pain,” added Shapoval. “I know that it is also horrible there … it seems like people are not understanding that.”

Shapoval said he reached out to her and tried to explain his perspective.

“It’s a bit hard right now,” he told the Blade.  

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Activists demand EU sanction Uganda over Anti-Homosexuality Act

Yoweri Museveni signed law on May 29, 2023

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Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya, an LGBTQ rights activist, speaks at a protest in front of the European Union Delegation to the United States’s offices in D.C. on April 18, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

More than a dozen activists who protested in front of the European Union Delegation to the United States in D.C. on Thursday demanded the EU to sanction Uganda over the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya, a Ugandan LGBTQ activist, and Global Black Gay Men Connect Executive Director Micheal Ighodaro are among those who spoke at the protest. Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell also participated in the event that her organization organized along with GBGMC and Convening for Equality Uganda, a Ugandan LGBTQ rights group.

(Washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The country’s Constitutional Court on April 3 refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.” A group of Ugandan LGBTQ activists have appealed the ruling.

A press release that Health GAP issued ahead of Thursday’s protest notes EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen on March 6 announced more than €200 million ($212.87 million) for Uganda in support of “small business owners, young female entrepreneurs, agribusinesses as well as vital digital infrastructure projects in full Team Europe format with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and several member states.”

“These concrete initiatives will make a difference to aspiring entrepreneurs, Ugandan businesses and create jobs in multiple sectors,” said Urpilainen in a press release that announced the funds. “This is a perfect example of how Global Gateway can make a tangible difference for citizens and businesses and unlock the full potential of a partner country by working together.”

Convening for Equality Uganda on Tuesday in a letter they sent to Urpilainen asked the EU to review all funding to Uganda and “pause or reprogram any funds that go via government entities.” The protesters on Thursday also demanded European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “to hold Ugandan President Museveni’s government accountable for this attack on human rights.”

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, in a statement he released after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act said the law “is contrary to international human rights law and to Uganda’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, including commitments on dignity and nondiscrimination, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

“The Ugandan government has an obligation to protect all of its citizens and uphold their basic rights,” said Borrell. “Failure to do so will undermine relationships with international partners.”

“The European Union will continue to engage with the Ugandan authorities and civil society to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, are treated equally, with dignity and respect,” he added.

Urpilainen last September in a letter to the European Parliament said the EU would not suspend aid to Uganda over the law.

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Gay Polish government minister represents change of course

Deputy Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek took office in December

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Deputy Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek. (Photo courtesy of Śmiszek's Instagram page)

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s only openly gay Cabinet minister on Tuesday spoke with the Washington Blade about the fight for LGBTQ rights in his country, Ukraine and U.S. politics.

Deputy Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek assumed his post last Dec. 13 after Donald Tusk became prime minister. 

The Civil Coalition, a group of opposition parties that Tusk leads, two months earlier won a majority of seats in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament. President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the conservative Law and Justice party who opposes LGBTQ rights, remains in office as part of the governing coalition.

Śmiszek, a member of the New Left party, has been a member of the Sejm since 2019.

He was born Stalową Wola, a city in southeastern Poland that is close to the country’s borders with Ukraine and Slovakia. Śmiszek now represents Wrocław, the country’s third largest city that is located in southwestern Poland.

He is a lawyer who worked for the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Polish LGBTQ rights group, for several years before he entered politics. Śmiszek’s partner is former MP Robert Biedroń, who is now a member of the European Parliament.

From left: Polish MEP Robert Biedroń and Deputy Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek. (Photo courtesy of Śmiszek’s Instagram page)

Śmiszek noted to the Blade during an interview in his office that the Justice Ministry has introduced a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Poland’s hate speech and hate crimes laws.

The Council of Ministers, which includes members of Tusk’s Cabinet, is expected to approve the proposal in the coming weeks. Śmiszek said MPs will support the measure, even though critics say it would limit free speech.

“It was quite natural for us, I would say, to agree on that,” he told the Blade. “We all witnessed all these statements and horrible actions towards LGBT (people during the previous government.)”

Duda became Poland’s president in 2015.

He said before he defeated Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski in the country’s 2020 presidential election that LGBTQ “ideology” is more dangerous than communism. Duda has also claimed LGBTQ Poles are “a threat to the family” and “want to sexualize children.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda (PBS News Hour YouTube screenshot)

More than 100 municipalities across Poland ahead of the election adopted resolutions that declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.”

The Law and Justice Party and Poland’s influential Roman Catholic Church supported them, while the European Union cut funding to municipalities that adopted them. The Warsaw Voivodship Administrative Court on Feb. 6 struck down the country’s final “LGBT-free zone” resolution that Mordy, a town in Siedlce County in eastern Poland that is roughly half way between Warsaw and the Belarusian border, adopted in 2019.

Tusk has indicated his support of a civil partnership bill, but Śmiszek conceded it will be a “huge” challenge to secure passage in parliament because it is not an official part of the coalition government’s manifesto. 

Śmiszek noted Poland has dropped its opposition to the case of a transgender man who filed a lawsuit in the European Union Court of Justice in Luxembourg after Romania refused to recognize his legal name and gender change that he received in the U.K. 

“We are trying not only to change the legal situation of LGBTI folks here in this country, but also we are taking a completely new approach, also of Poland, as a member of the European Union,” he said.

The Justice Ministry last month for the first time with LGBTQ activists.

Śmiszek said former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a member of the right-wing Sovereign Poland party, wrote many of the previous government’s proposals that targeted LGBTQ people and women. Śmiszek further described the ministry before the current government took office as a “governmental center of anti-LGBTI actions.”

“That was a very moving meeting that after eight years of hatred that was produced here in this ministry,” he said.

Śmiszek pointed out Duda’s first presidential veto was a bill that would have made the process through which transgender Poles could undergo gender-affirming surgery easier. Śmiszek said the new government wants “to make the lives of trans people a bit better and bearable in terms of relations with the state and with relations with the administration,” but conceded it “is difficult.” He also said Duda, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Catholic Church remain barriers to the advancement of LGBTQ rights.

“We are not starting from scratch in terms of new initiatives,” Śmiszek told the Blade. “We are getting back to the good solutions.”

“However, we are fully aware that there are plenty of conservative anchors and blockages in the institutional architecture,” he added.

Śmiszek also said his sexual orientation is not an issue to Tusk, to his fellow ministers and MPs.

“I haven’t heard any discussion or hesitation about should we have this guy in the ministry or not,” he said. “My sexual orientation is not an issue at all.”

A picture of Polish-born Pope John Paul II inside St. Catherine of Alexandria Church in Kraków, Poland. The Roman Catholic Church remains a powerful institution in Poland. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Poland knows Russia ‘very well’

Russia on Feb. 24, 2022, launched its war against Ukraine.

Śmiszek noted upwards of 2 million Ukrainians sought refuge in Poland, and many of them have remained in the country.

“Polish society passed its exam in terms of humanitarian aid and compassion for those who are victims of this aggressive war of Russia,” said Śmiszek.

A Russian missile on Nov. 15, 2022, killed two people in Przewodów, a village Hrubieszów County that is on the Ukrainian border. Another Russian missile on March 24 briefly entered Polish airspace near Oserdów, a village that is less than five miles away from Przewodów.

Śmiszek told the Blade he is increasingly concerned the war will spread to the Baltic countries — Lithuania, which borders Poland, and Latvia and Estonia — and to Poland itself. 

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea also borders Poland.

 “We are observing now, especially during the last few months, that something is going to happen,” he said.

Śmiszek acknowledged Ukraine in recent months has suffered setbacks on the battlefield, and the U.S. “is not very open to providing any help.”

“You can see Trump, what he is saying. You can also see some Western countries that are still hesitating,” he said. “This is a growing, unspoken emotion within Polish society that something is going to happen, the war will knock on our doors soon, in the next couple of years, and we are the second or third target of Putin if he’s not stopped by the united West.”

Śmiszek added Poland knows the Russians “very well.”

“That is why this is not something unusual when a Pole thinks about Russians invading our country,” he said. “It’s happened before.”

Tusk and Duda last month met with President Joe Biden at the White House in the hopes that Congress would pass a Ukraine funding bill. Śmiszek while speaking to the Blade criticized the delay.

“I know that they are trying to build their popularity, saying we should not spend billions of dollars for the wars that do not concern us and Russia will never attack us, blah, blah, blah,” he said. “In a way I do understand this rhetoric, but I don’t understand … it’s really a short-sighted approach.” 

“I really count on changing the approach of the U.S. because this is really a huge threat to world democracy, to human rights and we always perceive the U.S. as a kind of element of guarantees for democracy around the world,” added Śmiszek. “This time the U.S. is not passing its exam, especially the conservative part of American politics.”

A Pride commemoration in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Women’s Association)

Śmiszek said Poland will continue to work with the U.S., regardless of who wins this year’s presidential election. He did, however, express concerns over former President Trump based on his positions on LGBTQ and reproductive rights, his U.S. Supreme Court nominees and Ukraine.

“This is kind of worrying,” said Śmiszek. “This kind of approach to fundamental issues very relevant to the stability of the world is now in the hands of the guy who you cannot predict what his decisions will be when the time comes and it will be a need for taking very serious decisions concerning the stability of the world.” 

“He portrays himself as quite unstable I would say in terms of values he wants to defend,” he added.

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