It has been over 16 years since the European Union and Western Balkan countries agreed in Thessaloniki on the shared values of democracy, rule of law, respect for human and minority rights, solidarity and a market economy. These values constitute the very foundations of the European Union.
The EU reiterated its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries and clearly stated that the future of the Balkans is within the European Union. The process and the prospects it offered were to serve as the anchor for reform in the Western Balkans through a shared agenda, and commitment to its implementation from all sides, all the way to their future accession, as was done in Central and Eastern Europe.
The EU accession process has been an important driver and support for the reconciliation of the region that went through a turbulent decade of wars, ethnic conflicts and economic and societal crisis. It has led a path toward the respect of human rights and the rule of law for everyone.
Within this period, legislative steps were taken to better protect the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people, as EU integration served as an anchor for reforms in the region. We saw a time of real advances in human rights for all, including the protection of the fundamental rights of LGBTI people and an acknowledgement that LGBTI people are part of Western Balkan societies. The accession process has amplified the voices of local LGBTI activists and initiatives, helping drive forward their crucial work in protecting LGBTI rights and democratic societies.
Most countries have developed LGBTI National Action Plans that have created, or envisioned legal protections for LGBTI people against discrimination and violence and for equal treatment. Introducing, for example, the recognition of same-sex partnerships. As well as ensuring legal gender recognition procedures that will allow people to obtain personal documents based on self-determination.
These reforms in the framework of the EU accession process of Western Balkan countries are ongoing. Advances on achieving equality for LGBTI persons are still fragile and should not be taken for granted. The LGBTI National Action Plans still need to be properly implemented across the region. In December, notably after the refusal of the accession negotiations and contrary to European Commission advice, Albania went a few steps backward when it comes to respecting freedom of speech by approving controversial anti-defamation laws.
The decision not to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia despite their clear efforts and advances, damages the credibility of the accession process throughout the region. A process that has been fundamental to improving the legal rights and social acceptance of LGBTI people. Albania and North Macedonia have made significant steps and, like other Western Balkan countries, have demonstrated that the rule of law and respect for human and minority rights constitute the very foundations of these two countries.
North Macedonia adopted many laws to protect the rights of LGBTI people in the past 24 months, confirming the very essence of European values regarding fundamental rights by explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination, education, media and hate crime legislation. Albania adopted a number of laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination in employment and education, as well as hate crime laws that are inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The LGBTI Equal Rights Association for the Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA), gathered over 200 human rights defenders in the Albanian capital of Tirana for its regional LGBTI conference last November. The very first lesbian* march was also held in the city’s streets, without incident. North Macedonia held the first Pride Parade in June 2019, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy organized its first National Conference on the Advancement of LGBTI Rights in June 2019 as well.
The failure by the European Council to move forward with accession talks, despite all of these important advances, risks that not only will the governments of North Macedonia and Albania turn away from the enlargement process, but that throughout the region the trust in the process is lost. Governments will no longer stand by their commitments to uphold human rights, including those of LGBTI people, as a value to be protected and improved.
With no clear support from the EU and by stopping the EU integration process, LGBTI communities and activists in the Western Balkans are once again at risk of increased marginalization and of being left behind. Meanwhile, LGBTI movements will have even less support and space for development.
As throughout Europe, in the Western Balkans, we are witnessing the continuous rise of populism, political and religious extremism, and the emergence of powerful forces against women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and LGBTI rights. These forces are attempting to restrict and threaten the rights and freedoms of LGBTI people. With LGBTI communities and activists still living in the fragile and yet to be fully reformed Western Balkans, which are still facing a large number of human rights challenges, we have to state our deepest regrets and high concerns for the European Council’s historic error of refusing to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
The strong and devoted presence of the EU in the Western Balkans is crucial for the overall improvement of the position of marginalized groups such as LGBTI people. Its absence can severely damage the still fragile progress of the past decade and a half. The LGBTI movement across the region, including in Albania and North Macedonia, always protected the cause of EU integration and its values whenever this was questioned. We also recognize that the EU became the strongest ally of LGBTI civil society in the region, and bravely fought and is still fighting for the advancement of rights for every LGBTI individual.
Therefore, we call on the EU and all its Member States to raise awareness about the widespread consequences of this situation; and to do everything in their power to ensure that the start of accession talks is unblocked and to reiterate the European perspective of all Western Balkan countries.
Feature Image: Lazara Marinković.
The following ERA and ILGA-Europe member organizations from North Macedonia and Albania contributed to and support the views in this letter: ILGA-Europe — European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, ERA — LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey, Aleanca LGBT (Albania), Pink Embassy (Albania), The National Network Against Homophobia and Transphobia (North Macedonia) comprised of: Coalition Margins, Macedonian Helsinki Committee, Subversive Front, HERA (Health Education and Research Association) and LGBT Support Center.