In my dissertation - which is provisionally entitled "The Normative Ties That Bind?: National and Sexual Minority Rights in a Post-Enlargement Europe" - I explore the behavior of political actors concerning two of the EU's core principles as they apply to national and sexual minorities: (1) non-discrimination and (2) respect for minorities. Much has been made of an increasingly illiberal climate across the European continent, and across Central and Eastern Europe in particular, which has supposedly resulted in democratic backsliding and gross violations of the EU's values. The language of compliance is ever present in these analyses. I argue, however, that the Union's values are so vaguely defined, and unsupported by indicators and benchmarks, that we cannot meaningfully assess compliance behavior. These normative standards are terms within an incomplete contract: although they are binding upon all member states, their specific details remain unclear. Since the EU lacks the institutional mechanisms for clarifying and enforcing them, their precise meaning remains open to interpretation. I therefore suggest that norm contestation is a superior concept to norm compliance: the ambiguity surrounding these norms of minority rights creates a political opportunity structure that representatives can exploit for political gain. Although all actors are constrained by the same value-laden language, they can interpret these values in a manner that is consistent with their domestic political agenda. Virtually all politicians in Europe thus proclaim themselves to be champions of LGBT people and national minorities, but what this looks like in practice varies dramatically.
I explore this argument with a combination of different methods at both the supranational and the national level. Concerning the former, I quantify the behavior of Members of the European Parliament to explore patterns of support for minority rights between 2004 and 2015; I conduct both a content and a discourse analysis of relevant speeches to see how actors frame their arguments in favor or against these norms; and I probed elites' understandings of EU values in over 100 interviews. At the national level, I use official documents, records of parliamentary debates and elite interviews in order to construct process-tracing accounts of legislative initiatives concerning LGBT rights and national minority rights in two countries: Lithuania and Slovakia.