Last Thursday the Saeima, the Parliament of Latvia, upset the European Union by refusing to accept a labour bill that would make it a criminal offense for a private person or company to refuse to employ a gay person. The Saeima only approved the non-discrimination clauses, which Brussels had told the country to accept, after removing discrimination on the basis of “sexual preference” from the discriminations listed in the bill. The Latvian parliamentarians insisted on the right of private employers to turn down people whose moral behaviour they reject.
The amended labour bill angered both the Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga and the prime minister Aigars Kalvitis. When Latvia joined the EU in May 2004, the Latvian government agreed to the demand by Brussels – which is a condition for EU membership – that discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, religious or political beliefs, ethnic origin or social status, as well as sexual preference be prohibited.
After Thursday’s vote President Vike-Freiberga promptly vetoed the amended bill. Her veto forces the Latvian parliament to vote for a second time in order to pass the bill in its current form. This time the vote will require a majority of two thirds of the vote. The Latvian president said she saw a “logical reason” to list discrimination of gays alongside the other prohibited discriminations. Prime Minister Kalvitis lambasted the parliamentarians for homophobia. “Such intolerance as was seen in the parliament on Thursday had not been observed in Latvia so far,” he said. “But the president will definitely send the bill back to the parliament and we will cool the lawmakers’ heads.”
Kalvitis is the leader of the governing People’s Party (TP), which in the European Parliament belongs to the Christian-Democrat group. His coalition partner, the Latvian Green Party (LPZ) joined the opposition in voting down the sexual preference clause. Contrary to Green parties in Western Europe, which are mostly left-wing, the Latvian Greens have much in common with conservative parties in the West. The LPZ has teamed up with the Party of Traditional Farmers (LZS) in the Alliance of Greens and Farmers (ZZS).
By refusing to accept the sexual preference clause the Latvian Parliament crossed the European Parliament shortly after the latter passed a resolution to combat homophobia. On 15 June the European Parliament demanded that sentences be laid down for homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Vladimir Spidla, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, and a former Socialist Czech Prime Minister, told the European Parliament that the European Commission condemns all forms of homophobia, which he said flew in the face of the principles on which Europe was built. He pointed out that the Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Legislative measures, he said, must be accompanied by other measures to stamp out discrimination and denigrating behaviour. “We are firmly convinced that the EU must be a model of the fight against racism, xenophobia and homophobia,” Spidla said.
Last year Latvia included an amendment in its constitution restricting marriage to a man and a woman. Last January neighbouring Estonia rejected a proposal to include same-sex marriage in the new marriage law. Three weeks ago Hans Glaubitz, the Dutch ambassador to Estonia, left the country claiming that his “husband,” a black Cuban, had been harassed over his sexuality and race. Poland and Lithuania, too, have been criticised by the European Parliament and Commission for alleged “homophobia.”