Monday, 08 July 2013 13:13

How tolerant is Europe?

Written by Petya Yankova

17th of May was the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Why were hate crime and discrimination hotly discussed across the continent in May? And how is tolerance related to a dynamic economic situation?

Mid-May we saw the results of two important surveys. One was published by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the other was conducted by two Swedish professors and analysed by a foreign affairs blogger on The Washington Post. The EU Agency questioned LGBT people about their experiences of hate crime and discrimination, while Berggren and Nilsson’s survey explored the correlation between tolerance and economic growth and wellbeing. Although not apparently connected, the results of the two surveys could give an indication of Europe’s progress on the way to racial, gender and sexual orientation tolerance. 

The results of the EU FRA survey, which is the biggest online LGBT survey conducted by the EU so far, are published in an online, freely available report. This 30-odd pages report will be used, according to the FRA director, Morten Kjaerum, as a contribution ‘to much needed discussions in the EU and its Member States about concrete legislative and non-legislative measures to improve the situation for LGBT persons living in the EU’. The need for action is clear even at a first glance at the results.

The survey which ran between April and July 2012 had more than 93 000 respondents more than 20% of whom have felt discriminated in their workplace. This is, however, one of the lowest numbers. Asking about discrimination in schools or fear of attacks on the street raises the number to 60% in general. More than 80% remember having heard negative comments about gender in school. Nearly half of all victims of violence don’t even consider reporting attacks as they don’t believe anything would change.


Photo: EU FRA Survey results
Survey answers to the question: "In the last 12 months, in the country where you live, have you personally felt discriminated against or harassed on the grounds of sexual orientation?". Respondents aged 18 to 55+ 


These numbers are more than striking for a Europe that considers itself very tolerant. Looking at respondents by country changes somewhat the picture.  For example, offensive language towards the LGBT community is very widespread in Lithuania and Italy, followed by Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Latvia, while in the opinion of the respondents assaults and harassment against the LGBT community have very high rates in Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Lithuania. In a sad confirmation of the high percentage of hate crime, in mid-May a gay couple was violently beaten and robbed in London. One of the victims is the editor of gay and lesbian online magazine Polari, Christopher Bryant.  A fresh confirmation of the survey results is also found in Bulgarian online media.  The main article from the third week of May in one of the popular online news websites praises the country as topping Europe, while the language of the article and the reader comments is worth a separate survey by EU FRA. In comparison, similar reviews in Italian and French media focus on legislation and the rights of the LGBT community.

Analysing the results of the survey further reveals that respondents in Latvia, Netherlands and Denmark feel they have been treated with respect in their everyday life in the last six months, while participants from Lithuania, Romania and Ireland give the highest negative answers. The countries with most widespread positive measures to promote the human rights of the LGBT people, according to the opinion of the respondents, are Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom and Belgium, followed by Spain, Germany and Finland. The results of the FRA LGBT survey also reveal that young people (18-24) are more likely to perceive their environment as intolerant, and therefore least likely to be open about being LGBT. What is alarming about these results is that they show lack of belief that universal values such as human dignity will be considered and respected. Although coming from only one strand of European society, it might well turn out to be the case that other groups share the same fears.


Photo: EU FRA Survey results
The people per country that answered that discrimination for LGBT is 'very widespread' when asked: "In your opinion is discrimination of LGBT very rare, fairly rare, fairly widespread or very widespread in the country where you live?"


The correlation between economic freedom and tolerance explored by two Swedish researchers might help shed light on the confusing EU LGBT survey results. According to Berggren and Nilsson (2013), ‘economic freedom is positively related to tolerance towards homosexuals, especially in the longer run’. The underlying idea is that economic freedom is relative to market institutions and processes which affect the way people perceive other people. Theoretically, the correlation could turn either way - promoting tolerance or instilling discrimination, yet in practice, the results of the Swedish researchers show an increased tolerance in countries with economic freedom.  Perhaps an explanation of the higher levels of hate crime in some European countries has to take into account not only cultural perceptions and traditions, but also financial processes and security. 

Max Fisher, the Washington Post journalist who mapped the World Values Survey results onto Berggren and Nilsson’s research, concludes that the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries score the highest in tolerance. The question from the World Values Survey that Fisher uses is whether the respondent would want neighbours from another race. A high number of French respondents answered negatively, putting France next to the Balkan countries in terms of racial intolerance. Belarus and Latvia, however, showed very high positive responses, making them two of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Moldova, on the other hand, scores similarly to France, Bulgaria and Turkey as one of the least tolerant EU countries.

Although open to interpretation, these surveys show some surprising and some expected results about tolerance in Europe. The bottom line, however, is clear: Europe still faces discrimination. The problem emerges with different force in the European Member State societies, but it does emerge everywhere, and demands a quick address. This is especially important when considering the large percentage of youth responses revealing fear of discrimination.






Berggren, N. and Nilsson, T. (2013), Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?. Kyklos, 66: 177–207. doi: 10.1111/kykl.12017



Last modified on Wednesday, 10 July 2013 14:46

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