Obese means disabled?

Magdalena Styrnik

It is a common knowledge that being obese is not just the issue of  image, but above all it’s the issue of health. Obesity may reduce our comfort of life and make our existence in modern society much more difficult. As it turned out recently, under particular conditions obesity can be considered as disability and as such can not be a reason of discrimination while hiring people.

Obesity in numbers

Source: hrreview.co.uk

Source: hrreview.co.uk

In 2008 WHO estimated that in its Europe Region over 50% of both men and women were overweight, and roughly 23% of women and 20% of men were obese. The latest estimates in EU countries show that obesity affects 10-30% of adults. The fact that in 2011 more than 40 million children under age of five were overweight is even more alarming. Worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980. Overweight and obesity are often measured using the BMI (Body Mass Index) scale. A BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obesity.

Kaltoft case

The way how landmark decision started was when 50 years old childminder from Denmark,  Karsten Kaltoft (weight about 160kg/ 25 stone) brought a discrimination case against his employers who dismissed him in 2010 after 15 years of working.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

Source: dailymail.co.uk

Local council, which Kaltoft was working for, claimed that his weight made him unable to perform basic duties and  he even required help to tie a children’s shoelaces. The other reason, by which the authority tried to justify its decision was a fall in the number of children, which meant that Kaltoft’s job was no more needed. The claimant said that he was already overweight when he got the job and for 15 years he was told he did a good job. His lawyers  dismissed the “shoelaces’ story” and argued that Kaltoft weight was the reason of his dismissal which amounted to unfair discrimination.

Denmark court decided to ask the ECJ to explain EU law concerning the grounds of discrimination (especially Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (OJ 2000 L 303, p. 16)). As subsequent ECJ’ s rule pointed out, obesity can be one of them along with religion, age or sexual orientation, however only under certain circumstances.

The ECJ determined that obesity can fall within the concept of disability if it “hinders the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.” Further, judges explained that “ such would be a case, in particular, if the obesity of the worker hindered that participation on account of reduced mobility or the onset of medical conditions preventing that person from carrying out work or causing discomfort when exercising professional activity”. What is more, important point of this ruling is that the origin of the disability is irrelevant even if overeating is a cause for someone’s obesity.

Denmark court is now obligated to assess Kaltoft’s weight to fix if his case should be considered as a disability.

EU highest court ruling and its influence on employers and business

As ECJ’s judgment  is binding in EU countries it will surely affect European job market. According to C. Coleman (BBC) “ it’s a powerful statement that an obese worker whose weight hinders their performance at work is entitled to disability protection”.

Source: express.co.uk

Source: express.co.uk

However, there are much wider and serious consequences of such a rule. The obesity of a person now should be taken into consideration not only during recruitment process, but also during performing the job. The employers have to make much more effort than before to avoid discrimination suits. This may include wider seats, making access to the office easier and any other appropriate support for obese employees. It seems obvious that employers should ensure that their policies are in accordance with new rule.  They may be required to make reasonable adjustments for employees which medical problems are caused by obesity.  New solutions and higher costs may be unavoidable.

Someone may say that such a protection of obese employees will encourage them to stay obese even if they became unable to work as effectively as before. That seems to be another task for employers. They should consider what will cost them more- making adjustments or encouraging employees to stay fit by, for example, paying for gym or pool admission card.

The obesity itself is a very sensitive matter. As Kaltoft said he didn’t consider himself disabled.  Probably, so does a vast majority of obese people. It’ s important to remember that each situation is different and common sense will play crucial part in each case.

I believe that such a rule was not necessary to make a society aware that obesity is no reason for discrimination in any field of life, regardless the cause of being obese.  The rule itself will certainly affect the job market in EU, however it has another priceless value. The decision of EU highest court proves that overweight and obesity are  a common problem of our times. It is now our task to consider how we can prevent the situation when bad habits make our society a disabled society.


Eastern Partnership – the past and the present

Emil Wojtaluk

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is an EU’s initiative bringing six Eastern countries closer to the Union. Being a partner country does not necessarily mean they will join the EU, it is more about closer political cooperation and economic integration with the Union. The project is aimed at Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The original proposal was created by Poland and Sweden in 2008, particularly its Foreign Ministers at the time – Radosław Sikorski and Carl Bildt. Officially proposed by both countries at General Affairs and External Relations Council, 26 May 2008 in Brussels. The Eastern Partnership was inaugurated by the European Union at Prague summit of 7th May 2009.

Carl Bildt(left) and Radek Sikorski(right) (photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP)

Carl Bildt(left) and Radek Sikorski(right) (photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP)

How does it work?

The project itself is established within European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) but the Eastern Partnership goes much more beyond, making it more flexible and adjusted to the needs of individual partner countries. It takes into account much more factors such the economic ties with Russia and its influence on EaP countries. This policy is much more different, having in mind the history and dependency of partner countries during Soviet Union times, but also nowadays. Some countries still did not reform its administration to be suitable to European needs, that is why the proper EU’s Eastern Policy is important – to show the way for conducting reforms and existing together in some kind of unified system. Even if such a partner country will never join the European Union, it will significantly reform its economy and the whole country legislation to be more visible and competitive on the international arena. Too much post-soviet standards are still in existence in EaP countries. The project is governed within two dimensions: bilateral and multilateral.

Source: eeas.europa.eu

Source: eeas.europa.eu

We can distinguish so-called Flagship initiatives. Projects implemented under flagship initiatives are aimed at supporting Eastern Partnership countries in the process of fulfilling bilateral dimension targets, such as conducting reforms and meeting European norms and standards. There are five initiatives, one of them is “Integrated Border Management” – inter alia about visa facilitation or assistance in demarcation of internationally recognized border, which happened in case of Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The Eastern Partnership is also very institutionalized having Euronest Parliamentary Assembly or Civil Society Forum – which was launched to unite representatives of non-governmental organizations from partner countries and EU member states. In current budget perspective 4,1 billion euro will be provided for development of this project.

EaP Summits

The Eastern Partnership summits shape the guidelines to be met until the next meeting of EaP countries and EU member states. The period between the previous and next summit is more or less 2 years. The first Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Prague on May 7, 2009.

Source: © 2013 Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Photo by R. Dačkus

Source: © 2013 Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Photo by R. Dačkus

As the first it established guidelines for further development of the project, thematic platforms and ended up with specific goals to be achieved in the Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit. The second Eastern Partnership Summit was held in Warsaw on 29-30 September, 2011. One important fact was that Belarus boycotted Warsaw summit stating that “the EU discriminate President Lukashenka” because he cannot attend any summit. It is the result of long lasting regime in Belarus, where the elections are forged since many years. If the situation improves, the EU will warmly welcome Belarus as participant in summits and EaP activities. The last and the most “reforming” Eastern Partnership summit was the Vilnius summit of 28-29 November 2013. Azerbaijan has signed a visa facilitation agreement with the EU, the Union has also initialized Association Agreements between Moldova and Georgia (including DCFTAs). The most expected event to happen was signing the agreements with Ukraine. EU was technically ready to sign Association Agreement with Ukraine but President Yanukovych announced he will not sign the agreement and move closer to the Euroasian Economic Union developed by Russia. That is why protests that lead to his overthrowing began. The next Eastern Partnership summit will be held in Riga, Latvia in May 2015, which is seen as the most important summit to be organized in EaP history, especially at the time of Russian activities in Ukraine.

Sikorski on Russia’s attitude

Marshal SIkorski(in the middle) at the Atlantic Council(Photo: twitter.com/AtlanticCouncil)

Marshal Sikorski(in the middle) at the Atlantic Council(Photo: twitter.com/AtlanticCouncil)

Last Friday, on 30th January 2015 one of the creators of this Eastern project was invited to share his views at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. – Radosław Sikorski, current Marshal of Polish Sejm (Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament). He participated in the event Europe’s East: Mapping Europe’s Strategic Landscape[1]. In his opinion 10 years ago it was possible to imagine that Russia was on the convergence course by joining our institutions like The Council of Europe, World Trade Organization, NATO-Russia Council. We had some disagreements but the rules seemed to be accepted. Now we are on a different trend – Russia is considering withdrawing from the Council of Europe, OSCE rules have been violated. According to Sikorski we face the prospect of either having to accept Russia’s rules or live in a world of no rules. We have also another problem, how not diplomatic language is being used by Russian diplomacy. In a recent interview Sergey Lavrov has said that “if Ukraine drops neutrality then further partition will follow” – that’s pre-modern way in Sikorski’s opinion. And I must say that I fully agree with it, the language that is being used by Russia is totally unacceptable, not to mention about its actions. Sikorski thinks that USA should be more decided in its actions and show the way for others. Russia sees the Eastern Partnership as very provocative move from the EU. Mr Sikorski has said that

“in current perspective 4,1 bln euro is going to be spent on things like Integrated Border Management(…) or anti-corruption training program and I can’t see how can it be a geopolitical challenge to anybody”.

Ukraine – a strategic Eastern Partnership member

It is not a new information that Ukraine is the most populous and the most important country for the Eastern Partnership. The future of this country means at the same time future of the whole East project. Since the end of 2013 Ukraine is experiencing both economic and political problems.

EaP countries marked in orange (source: wikipedia.org)

EaP countries marked in orange (source: wikipedia.org)

Overthrowing of President Victor Yanukovych was a sign for Russia that they can lose control over the region and that the Ukraine backed by Western countries will not be so much exposed on threats, also economic ones. Russian policy towards “near abroad” can be compared to Soviet times, when it was enough to threat of military intervention or economic blockade. Now, the times has changed but Russian attitude towards the West is still very provocative. The Ukrainian conflict has shown us that it is probably the second Cold War period in history. Even if there are more and more evidences that Russia is supplying the so called “separatists” in military equipment and sending its undercover troops, it is always denied by the President Putin or Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov. The European Union never claimed that the Eastern Partnership Project is targeted against Russian interests, if the partner country does not want to sign the agreements with the Union it is a normal thing. Respecting democracy and sovereignty of EaP countries the EU has never threatened its Eastern partners by any kind of economic restrictions, which Russia does over and over again. The country of Russia is not respecting basic principles of the United Nations such as the “self-determination” principle – it means that each country has the right to decide about its own future. The future of the EaP also depends on the results of the Riga Summit, which for sure will be very important in drafting the new strategy, I would say the “crisis strategy”. I hope the reforms of EaP will be possible to achieve. A very important fact is that the sanctions imposed on Russia are working, but I think they were implemented too late. My opinion is that the lack of strong reaction of the World (including the EU), to Russian invasion in Georgia in 2008 was like an encouragement for President Putin to invade other countries in the future. He felt that no one can oppose to his ideas so he can invade others without any worries.

To conclude, there is no unanimity in the EU as for Russian activities. The situation is changing all the time, and that is why there is no clear answer on what can happen in the future. The EU should speak as one voice, that is the key. Let us also not forget, that the success of the Eastern Partnership depends on the willingness of the partner countries to share European standards and values.

[1] The full video is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZRGv-dwpEE