*via EU Observer
BRUSSELS - The European Commission has said in a written note that respect for gay rights is a legal criterion for EU accession.
It cited the 1993 so-called Copenhagen criteria for EU eligibility and article 2 of the EU Treaty, which prohibit discrimination against "minorities."
It also cited articles 10 and 19 of the EU Treaty and article 21 of the European Charter on Fundamental Rights, which explicitly forbid discrimination on grounds of "sexual orientation."
"Rights of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people thus form an integral part of both the Copenhagen political criteria for accession and the EU legal framework on combatting discrimination. They are closely monitored by the EU commission, which reports annually on the progress made by enlargement countries with regard to the situation of the LGBT community," it said.
The commission note was sent to EUobserver in response to a question born of an interview with an Armenian cleric.
Armenia, a deeply Christian country where church teaching has more authority than in many EU states with Christian roots, is keen to become an EU member.
Homosexuality is not against the law. But according to a recent study by the Brussels-based rights group Ilga-Europe, it scores better only than Moldova and Russia in terms of legal protection of LGBT people in Europe.
Armenian law does not prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. It does not recognise any form of same-sex partnership and has no provision for legally changing one's gender, the study says.
Its legal edifice is reflected in popular feeling.
A small pro-toleration rally in the Armenian capital on 21 May saw police struggle to keep counter-protesters at bay, who yelled slogans referring to gay people as a disease and as a threat to children.
Three priests came to speak to media, one of whom recalled the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to justify anti-gay views.
Counter-protesters the same night vandalised one of Yerevan's few gay-friendly bars.
For his part, Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, an ecumenical officer at the Armenian catholic church, made no bones about the situation.
"It's not in our culture to accept homosexuals. I mean, we don't reject the person, but we reject the sin and this is our freedom as Armenians. Our culture does not accept this," he told EUobserver in a recent interview in Etchmiadzin, the official seat of the Armenian church.
He said Armenia upholds basic human rights, but gay rights are a "secondary" issue where difference of opinion should be permitted.
"We have our cultural differences which should be respected ... These are questions on which you don't have consensus also in Europe. Europe is not just western Europe. For instance, Poland is a strong Christian country, or Romania or Bulgaria, or Serbia - Armenia is closer to these countries in its understanding," he explained.
EU entrants in some cases negotiate opt-outs from EU laws or transition periods for implementing sensitive parts of the rulebook.
But for Ulrike Lunacek, an openly lesbian Austrian Green MEP who co-chairs a European Parliament gay rights group, this does not mean countries can choose which values they adopt.
"Accession of a country will not be possible if certain LGBTI [the I stands for 'intersex'] rights are not put into law and into practice. Non-discrimination in the field of employment, for instance, has become part of the acquis," she said, citing an EU directive on non-discrimination from 2000.
"Protection of Pride marches has become a recurrent monitoring theme in the commission's progress reports on enlargement countries," she added.
She noted that EU institutions should work with conservative countries on the Union's fringe rather than putting up barriers, however.
"That is what the EU also stands for: co-operation instead of confrontation, openness instead of fear ... And that is another good thing," she said.