In my book project 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. I conducted a discourse analysis of relevant speeches in the European Parliament, the Seimas of Lithuania and the National Council of Slovakia to see how actors frame their arguments in favor or against these norms; and I probed elites' understandings of EU values in over 150 interviews. At the national level, I also constructed process-tracing accounts of legislative initiatives that restricted the rights of LGBT people and national minorities in recent years. Examples of the former include an anti-gay propaganda law in Lithuania (The Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effects of Public Information) and the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Slovakia. Regarding national minority rights, I look, among other things, at the prohibition of bilingual street signs in Lithuania and the tightening of language and citizenship laws in Slovakia.