European Union and Non-Discrimination

A goal yet to be achieved and costing less than discriminatory solutions which require far more expensive subsequent interventions
Rodolfo Cattani

Relegated to some bottom drawer of the Council of the European Union lies a proposal for a directive which is very important to civil society organizations, particularly those representing persons with disabilities. It is the proposal for a directive COM (426) 2008 of the European Commission on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.


This proposal should have completed the legal framework of the EU upon directive 2000/43/EC which prohibits discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin, and directive 2000/78/EC on equal treatment in employment and occupation. The proposal has been blocked for seven years because of the opposition of some Member States, which is completely unacceptable, since Article 19 (1) of the Treaty on European Union states that the Union may “take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”.


The main reasons given by Member States to justify the opposition to the text agreed by the Commission and the Parliament are:

—Is it really necessary for the EU to legislate on this matter? Wouldn’t the principle of subsidiarity be applicable?

—The scope of the directive entails excessive costs;

—Is it appropriate to wait for the adoption of the European directive on accessibility?

—Could preferential treatment (affirmative action) be precluded in favour of certain groups of people?


Il Consiglio Europeo - Bruxelles

In reality, these are incorrect or false arguments, which overlook the fact that the directive should ensure respect for the fundamental human right of equal treatment, which belongs to all citizens of the EU without restriction or exception. It is all too clear that European legislation in this regard is necessary, since discrimination across the EU is still too frequent.


The anti-discrimination directives mentioned above have had a positive effect, but only in the specific area they refer to, leaving out many aspects of people’s daily lives:

—Discrimination and bullying in schools, which lead to stigma, exclusion, truancy at school, sometimes even suicide;

—Denial of fundamental rights of homosexual couples, such as the prohibition to visit the partner in the hospital or the denial of information relating to sensitive data, the exclusion of the partner from inheritance;

—Lack of information in the format and manner accessible to patients with disabilities or even unequal therapeutic treatment for the elderly;

—Limitations or refusal by insurance companies to provide policies for elderly or disabled persons.


The EU directive on equal treatment is necessary because it could greatly reduce this discriminatory behaviour that States do not address effectively. In addition, it seeks to attain the same protection for all citizens wherever they are in the EU and the same operating conditions for companies in different Member States.


With regard to the reservations on the field of action, Member States retain considerable autonomy relating to social security, assistance and housing, as well as health and education systems. As far as disability and accessibility are concerned, the proposal remains within the limits of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which, as an international treaty on human rights, is at a level higher than the same legal directive and intends solely to identify a framework of minimum standards for promoting the enjoyment of rights. About the costs related to the implementation of the directive, it is appropriate to recall once again a matter which is now indisputable: guaranteeing an equal playing field for all costs money, but it costs less than discriminatory solutions which require far more expensive subsequent interventions. It is not necessary to await the adoption of the European Accessibility Act, which aims to increase the use of goods and services in the single market, to ensure freedom of movement, consumer protection and access to specific areas such as transportation, communication, etc., since the directive on equal treatment deals more with fundamental rights.


The risk of hindering positive action in favour of certain groups of people does not seem realistic, given that such measures do not conflict, but rather coincide with the interest of wider social groups.


Finally, it should be noted that the timing for implementing the directive is such as to enable States to take all necessary measures: four years for transposition, another five years for the adaptation of buildings, infrastructure, and new transport services, twenty years for the adaptation of those that already exist.


In conclusion, the advantages of the adoption of the directive on equal treatment in the EU are indisputable and it is hoped that the Council decides to approve it.