The European Commission has been urged by several leading groups in the European Parliament to implement a discrimination directive that covers sexual orientation.

There have been strong indications from Commission President Jose Manual Barroso and employment, social affairs and equal opportunities commissioner Vladimir Spidla that the directive may focus on disability only.

Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, covering race and employment directives, requires EU member states to introduce legislation to outlaw unfair discrimination on the grounds of race, sexual orientation, religion or belief, disability and age in the fields of employment and training.

The directive also applies to areas such as education and goods and services.

A directive to combat discrimination on the remaining grounds of Article 13 was announced in the Commission’s work programme for 2008 and will be decided on in the coming months.

EU directives are legislation that requires member states to, for example, deal with discrimination, but leaves it up to the states to decide on the best course of action to take.

Last week the European Parliament’s all-party social affairs committee voted for a framework directive against all forms of discrimination, despite firm opposition by right-wing MEPs.

In 2004 Mr Barroso made a statement before the Parliament promising to personally ensure that the legal protections would be enlarged to all forms of discrimination.

The European Parliament has called for such a directive at least on seven occasions in the past eight years.

British Euro MP Stephen Hughes, who is Socialist Group spokesman on social policy, said after the vote:

“We need a framework directive to ban all forms of discrimination.

“People can move freely around the countries of the EU. They should not face any form of discrimination wherever they find themselves.

“That is why we need a common set of safeguards across the EU.”

Hungarian MEP Magda Kosane Kovaces, who led negotiations on the issue for the Socialist Group, said:

“Every country has numerous cases in which people cannot find accommodation, health insurance or other services because of their skin colour, their age or their sexual orientation.

“That is why we are asking the European Commission to act.

“Mr Barroso has suggested he would support specific legislation for people with handicaps.

“But we say you cannot pick and choose between forms of discrimination: all of them need to be tackled.”

The European Liberals and Democrats group in the European Parliament (ALDE), which has more than 200 MEPs, among them 11 Lib Dems, has urged the European Commission to act.

“The long-awaited horizontal directive was expected to combat all forms of discrimination not only in the work place but in all avenues of life,” ALDE leader Graham Watson said.

“Yet it risks promising more than it will deliver unless it includes clear mentions of age, religion and sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination.

“Without such provisions in place Europe’s ambitions to safeguard the rights of the individual will wither on the vine.”

Last week members of the European Parliament’s LGBT rights group and the International Lesbian and Gay Association called on the European Commission to propose a “horizontal” EU directive.

Natalia Alonso, deputy director of Amnesty International EU Office said:

“At EU level, the Equality and Race Directives were remarkable achievements at their time.

“Eight years later, the EU must not miss this opportunity to build on this legacy and adopt a comprehensive human rights instrument.

“It is only by recognising all forms of discrimination that the EU will be able to fulfil both objectives of tackling multiple forms of discrimination and preventing discrimination in all areas of daily lives.”

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary John Monks said:

“A broad directive covering all the grounds mentioned in Article 13 of the Treaty would give a strong message to the Member States of the EU and their citizens that we cannot build a modern and cohesive society on discrimination.

“With the aging of our populations, the growing diversity of our societies in terms of ethnic origin and religion, and the increasing intolerance against people because of their different sexual orientations, a strong and coherent body of law – protecting all our citizens from discrimination wherever they are in the EU – should be the priority target.

“Limiting the initiative now to disability leaves other grounds uncovered in the foreseeable future by EU-wide standards.”

The UK’s leading gay, lesbian and bisexual equality group said:

“Stonewall is monitoring developments and wants to see the maximum protection for lesbian, gay and bisexual people throughout the EU.

“In a Europe with a single market and free movement equality should not stop at the UK border.”