Members' Research Service By / November 16, 2015

Promoting tolerance in the EU

Written by Martina Prpic In 1995 − which was the United Nations (UN) Year for Tolerance − the UN established…

Francesco De Paoli / Fotolia
Written by Martina Prpic

In 1995 − which was the United Nations (UN) Year for Tolerance − the UN established 16 November as the International Day for Tolerance. The day was intended to serve as a reminder of the dangers of intolerance and the necessity to promote tolerance through raising public awareness, education and other means. Recent research and surveys have shown that this reminder is still very much needed. The EU has made many efforts to combat intolerance in Member States and has stepped up action in recent years.


The UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance defines tolerance as acceptance, respect and appreciation of the diversity of human existence. The Declaration emphasises that tolerance is not only a moral duty, but also a political and legal requirement. Thus, it requires tolerance-promoting legislation and its enforcement. However, it also requires systematic tolerance education because, ultimately, the most effective way of combating intolerance is targeting its roots. The means of accomplishing this is through fostering critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills. The development of tolerance is especially important since exclusion and marginalisation of vulnerable groups may lead to fear, hostility and fanaticism.

Intolerance in the EU

Unique Yellow ladybird
Francesco De Paoli / Fotolia

In spite of the fact that 20 years have passed since the signing of the Declaration, more work still needs to be done to eradicate intolerance in the world, including in the EU, where the situation varies across Member States. A significant percentage of members of various vulnerable groups in the EU still feels, and is, discriminated, excluded and threatened. This goes both ways: EU citizens show prejudice against certain groups as the latest Eurobarometer survey on discrimination in the EU shows.

For example, 20% of people surveyed would feel uncomfortable with working with a Roma person, and only 45% would be comfortable or indifferent to having them as their children’s partners. Results from a 2011 Fundamental Rights Agency survey among Roma also reveal that 46% of respondents over 16 felt discriminated against in the preceding year, because of their ethnic origin.

Some 15% of respondents in 2015 would also be uncomfortable with having a person from a religious minority in the highest political office. As co-workers, people of different religions are perceived differently. While 94% would be comfortable or indifferent to working with a Christian, 87% feel the same about working with atheists, 84% about Jewish, 81% about Buddhist and only 71% about Muslim people. Muslims are also perceived as least desirable as prospective partners for the respondents’ children: 30% would be uncomfortable with a Muslim partner for their child.

When it comes to their children having a relationship with a person with a disability, 67% of people would not have a problem. Eight per cent would be uncomfortable with such persons occupying the highest political office and 3% would be uncomfortable in working with them.

A significant percentage of people (29%) would be uncomfortable with having a person older than 75 in the highest political office. More people are comfortable or indifferent to having a person under 30 in that position (61%).

Survey results from 2012 show that 16% of respondents agree that the use of offensive language about LGBT people among politicians is very widespread in their countries. By Member State, the percentage of people agreeing with this ranges from 58% in Lithuania down to 1% in Luxembourg. The Eurobarometer survey reveals that 23% of respondents disagree with LGBT people having the same rights as heterosexual people.

As regards gender-based discrimination in the EU, for example, in October 2013, only 17.8% of board members on large listed companies in the EU-28 were women. The gender pay gap was 31.1% (although other sources put it as low as 16.5%) and the gender pension gap was 38.3% in favour of men in 2012.

Combating discrimination in the EU

Tolerance and respect for diversity are among the core values of the EU, as expressed in Article 2 TEU, which lists the fundamental values upon which the EU is based. To actively defend them, Article 19 TFEU gives the Council (within its powers and with the consent of the European Parliament) licence to combat discrimination in the EU, and Article 10 lists the forms of discrimination to be addressed through secondary legislation: gender, race, religion, disability, age and sexual orientation.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU which, according to Article 6(1) TEU, has the same legal value as the Treaties, enshrines the rights on which the EU is based. Article 10 of the Charter grants everyone freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Article 20 − equality before the law, Article 21 prohibits discrimination and Article 22 promotes cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

Based on these principles, the EU has developed secondary legislation on anti-discrimination. The most relevant legislative acts in this area are:

  • Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC), which provides a framework for combating direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin, and covers the widest range of areas: employment, vocational training, education, social protection and access to public goods and services.
  • Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC), which is a general framework for combating direct and indirect discrimination on multiple grounds (religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation), but only as regards employment and occupation.
  • Gender Equality Directive (2004/113/EC) addressing direct and indirect discrimination based on gender.
  • 2008 Council Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia, which has made offences against persons based on race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin punishable by criminal law.
  • Victims of Crime Directive (2012/29/EU), which establishes minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, including hate crime. It expands the definition of the victim from the previous directive, ensures the victims access to understandable information and reinforces their protection. This Directive takes effect on 16 November 2015.

Work in progress

In 2008, a horizontal Equal Treatment Directive (targeting discrimination based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation) was proposed by the Commission and endorsed by the Parliament, but it has been blocked in the Council since the required unanimity of all Member States has not been achieved so far. The proposal is important because it extends measures against discrimination beyond employment and occupation, so as to achieve a scope of protection similar to the Racial Equality Directive.

In March 2015 the Parliament debated a resolution on the rise of anti-Semitism, islamophobia and violent extremism in the EU (2015/2595(RSP)). On that occasion, the Commission announced that stepping up actions to combat these phenomena should be a priority.

In September 2015, the Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of fundamental rights in the EU (2013-2014) (2014/2254(INI)). It called upon the Commission to initiate infringement proceedings against systematic violations of Article 2 TEU (on fundamental rights and values of the EU), and for all EU legislative proposals and policies to comply with the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The internet has been recognised as an especially problematic area. The Commission has expressed concern over the incidence of hate speech on the web, and has been working on strengthening EU action in that area from several angles. It has been dealing with the issue as part of the implementation of the European Agenda on Security and the Digital Single Market Strategy, but it has also been helping EU Member States to exchange good practices in combating online hate speech through the Expert Group on racism and xenophobia and the new Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme. The problem of online hate speech is also addressed in a report of the Civil Liberties Committee (rapporteur: Rachida Dati, EPP, France) on prevention of radicalisation and recruitment of European citizens, which is due to be voted on in plenary on 24 November 2015. Among other things, the resolution calls on internet companies to prevent the spread of hate speech, and suggests criminal action against those companies which fail to comply.

Read this publication ‘Promoting tolerance in the EU‘ in PDF version.

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