Society

A Czech Exception? LGBTI Push For Progress In Central Europe

Attitudes are shifting in countries with both a communist past and strong Christian roots.

At the Prague Pride parade in 2019
William Nattrass

PRAGUE — It's no secret that Central Europe isn't the world's best place for LGBTI people. The odious anti-gay rhetoric of Polish President Andrzej Duda recently made international headlines, along with the country's introduction of "LGBT-free zones." In Hungary, Viktor Orbán's government used its power of decree during the coronavirus pandemic to make it impossible for people to change their legal gender, passing a bill replacing "gender" in the civil registry with "sex at birth." Meanwhile, Slovakia's Constitution explicitly limits marriage to opposite-sex couples, while a Eurobarometer survey five years ago found that only 24% of Slovaks support same-sex marriage.

Still, the region is not a monolith and times continue to evolve, which makes the situation for LGBTI in the Czech Republic worth particular attention.

Many Czech politicians and public figures speak strongly in support of the LGBTI community, most prominently supporting Prague Pride, which attracted 30,000 participants in 2019 (Prague City Hall flew a rainbow flag for the duration of Pride week). Major corporations are increasingly expressing their support for LGBTI rights, both internally and externally. In short, public opinion on the big questions of gay rights appears to only be heading in one direction.

Still, in the recently published ILGA Rainbow 2020 report rating every European nation on legislation supporting LGBTI people, the Czech Republic's alarmingly low score – 26 out of 100 – puts it below Hungary and Slovakia, and only slightly above even more conservative Poland.

Yet despite the poor ranking, real differences exist between the Czech Republic and its highly religious Central European neighbors. An absence of societal or political factors making religion a major influence among younger demographics has allowed a liberal attitude to assume dominance. Czechs derive almost as much amusement in describing their title as "the most atheist country in the world" as they take pride in their role as "the most beer-drinking country in the world".

Central Europe isn't the world's best place for LGBTI people.

It is a long way from Poland, where Catholicism has long stood as a symbolic bind based on the historical role it played during occupation by Prussia and Russia in the 19th century. This perception extended into the communist era of the second half of the 20th century. The Church does not carry the same symbolic significance among Czechs, despite their shared experience of 20th-century communism. In Hungary, religion is being mobilised by Viktor Orbán's government as part of a nationalist agenda emphasizing devotion to the homeland.

So what explains the Czech Republic's low score in the Rainbow rankings? The answer may be mostly generational. If religious belief lingers as a strong influence in Czech society, it is primarily among people over the age of 60. Studies have shown a major division between the old and the young when asked about belief in God. And even elderly people who don't believe in God lived a large portion of their lives under a communist regime which abhorred homosexuality for cultural reasons: Gay people were fired from their jobs, kicked out of school, or beaten by the police.

Protest against hatred against LGBTQ+ people in Warsaw, Poland — Photo: Hubert Mathis/ZUMA

Today, while traditional attitudes may be receding, they are still a vote winner or loser. It seems to be the political risk of explicitly pro-LGBTI legislation that is hindering its passage through the Czech Parliament.

Legalization of gay marriage is a case in point. The Czech Republic's liberal attitudes extend to widespread support for same-sex marriage, but legislation tabled by the government in June 2018 has remained stalled, with Prime Minister Andrej Babiš"s government relying on older voters outside the liberal environs of Prague.

Still, given the weight of public opinion in favor of gay marriage, it seems reasonable to assume that this legislation — and more on other key issues, such as the banning of conversion therapy and the legalization of joint adoption for LGBTI couples — will inevitably arrive.

LGBTI rights campaigners argue that they've waited long enough, and the Rainbow report calls for uncompromising and swift action.. The Czech Republic either implements pro-LGBTI legislation now, or it remains a hostile, homophobic and transphobic nation.

Ultimately, most Czechs agree that it isn't whether change will come, but how and how fast. When it does, you can be sure its neighbors will notice.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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