EVERY year ILGA-Europe, an NGO, produces a “Rainbow Index” comparing the rights of LGBTI people across European nations. The organisation ranks countries by their laws and policies. It gives high marks to those that bar discrimination against gay and transgender people; recognise gay marriage; punish “hate crimes” (including speech); recognise people as belonging to whichever gender they say they do; and grant asylum to refugees from homophobic countries. Of the 49 countries in the study, the top finisher in this year’s index was Malta.

A small Mediterranean island state, Malta is deeply Catholic, and hardly an oasis of liberalism. It did not legalise divorce until 2011, and still bans abortion. However, in 2013 the centre-left Labour Party took power after 15 years in opposition. It has prioritised gay-friendly policies. In the past five years, Malta became the first country in Europe to ban “conversion therapy”, a psychological treatment intended to change people’s sexual orientation. It also changed the language used to refer to domestic and family relationships in legal documents, making them gender-neutral. Evelyne Paradis of ILGA-Europe says both laws have become global benchmarks. Malta overtook Britain to grab the top spot in the ranking in 2016, even though it did not legalise same-sex marriage until last year.

In general, countries in northern and western Europe, which are the continent’s richest and most liberal nations, tend to score well. Some in eastern Europe were pushed in a liberal direction during the process of applying to join the European Union, which makes respecting minority rights a condition of membership. The most illiberal places in the ranking tend to cluster in eastern Europe and central Asia. The majority-Muslim states of Turkey and Azerbaijan sit near the bottom.

Although the “Rainbow Index” broadly correlates with different countries’ levels of tolerance towards minorities, it is calculated solely on the basis of laws and regulations. It does not try to measure how gay people are actually treated by their neighbours. Ms Paradis notes Croatia and Hungary have reasonably liberal laws but an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards LGBTI people.