500 characters to remain EU citizens

Some nine million people have taken part in European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs) since their inception in April 2012. These are formal mass petitions calling on the European Commission to propose laws by popular initiative. But it takes at least one million endorsements for an ECI to be successful.

Four of 48 registered initiatives have reached the one million threshold which requires a considered response from the Commission. The result is also not necessarily positive. The Commission may decline the ‘invitation’ to act or act insufficiently upon it. Now the draft Withdrawal Agreement on the UK departure from the EU explicitly removes the ECI rights from UK nationals on exit day, scheduled for 30 March 2019. Does any of this matter?

On 10 April in the precincts of the European Economic and Social Council in Brussels, several hundred ECI enthusiasts gathered to mark ECI Day 2018. ‘Working Together’ was the anodyne yet purposeful theme of the meeting. EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans pledged sustained promotion of ECI rights over the next few years, to reform procedures to make ECIs easier to initiate and endorse, and to encourage constructive responses from the Commission. The proposed reform will also enable all EU citizens aged 16 years or older to organise and endorse ECIs. 2020 is the target date for introducing the reformed ECI procedures, by which time some 60 million EU citizens who are UK nationals will be ‘third country nationals’ without any such rights left. They represent more than 10% of the population of the European Union.

A few days later, on April 13, the EU Commission issued a notice saying that ‘as of the withdrawal date, UK citizens can no longer be organisers of citizens’ initiatives’, nor will their statements of support for an ECI count unless they are verified prior to the withdrawal date. This applies to all UK nationals resident throughout the EU28. As ECIs usually run for 12 months, the ECI door is thus already closing for UK nationals, unless some wiggle room is found.

Currently, one simple way to enact our rights as European Union citizens is by endorsing the Retaining European Citizenship Initiative, which is open for signature until 2 May 2018. In so doing, a blow is struck for active European citizenship and against any downgrading of that status, which is implicit in the negotiations on the UK’s departure. The scope of the emerging Withdrawal Agreement is confined to those who have exercised their Treaty rights. But the impact will be felt much more widely amongst the European Union’s citizenry.

With this ECI, we wanted to emphasise citizenship of the Union and the threat Brexit poses to this ‘fundamental’ status. At 500 characters, an ECI is almost twice as long as a Tweet, but far more rare!

To uphold the right of Union citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of Member States under objective conditions of freedom and dignity (Directive 2004/38/EC), and to safeguard citizens of the Union from use as bargaining chips in negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, requests the Commission submit a proposal to retain the rights of EU citizenship for all those who have already exercised their freedom of movement prior to the departure of a Member State leaving the Union, and for those nationals of a departing State who wish to retain their status as citizens of the Union. 

There are other similar initiatives, so we are working together within our slender means, and between us we have gathered some 60,000 endorsements for our four initiatives. This may not sound much, ‘insufficient support’ in the doleful words of the ECI register, but it nevertheless represents a revealing process of citizenship enactment, which was explored on ECI Day in a workshop on building synergies between ECIs to deepen EU citizenship.

What revelations? First of all, many of our critics in the UK and beyond deny there is any such thing as ‘European citizenship’. Europe is not a state, therefore it cannot have citizens, they contend. When confronted with the text of Article 20 of the EU Treaty, on EU citizenship, they shrug it off with varying degrees of courtesy and discourtesy.

A practical problem is the personal data required to endorse ECIs, and therefore to encourage people to participate. A good number of people have told us they are not prepared to give many details, while others have told us they couldn’t navigate the collection site. Despite the online privacy statement, some have asserted that the ECI is a scam to harvest data. More to do to gain trust.

But ECIs represent a useful tool for EU citizens to deepen their participation and to act transnationally. Organising committees for ECIs require seven EU citizens resident in seven different member states. Successful initiatives require meeting thresholds for endorsements in at least seven member states.

The European Union’s democratic deficit will not be repaid by the European Citizens’ Initiative, however many there are. Nevertheless, within the sometimes febrile Brexit debate, citizenship of the Union has begun to register. How can we reassure citizens of the Union that their status is permanent? ECIs have a pertinent role in this democratic process.

Tony Simpson, Representative, Retaining European Citizenship ECI.
Photo via Pixabay.


European Citizen Initiatives on this topic

Retaining European Citizenship.

European Free Movement Instrument. Closed. 

EU Citizenship for Europeans: United in Diversity in Spite of jus soli and jus sanguini. Closed. 

More than education – Shaping active and responsible citizen. Closed.

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