As Brexit negotiations are about to start, groups of Britons are taking action to preserve their EU citizenship after the UK leaves the European Union.
In the past 6 months three European Citizens’ Initiatives aiming to maintain existing rights have been registered by the European Commission. European Citizens’ Initiatives are petitions calling the EU to legislate on matters of its competence.
The first petition requests to separate EU citizenship from nationality. At present citizens of EU states automatically acquire EU citizenship and benefit from the rights deriving from it. Separating the principles would, in theory, allow people from non-EU countries – like the UK in the future – to remain EU citizens. The petition is promoted under the name ‘Flock Brexit’, on the basis of idea that Europeans share a common destiny and “birds of a feather flock together”. Organisers want the UK to reciprocate these rights and plan to take the case to the European Court of Justice.
The second initiative calls on the Commission to uphold EU citizenship rights for all those who have exercised freedom of movement before Brexit. These include not only EU nationals in the UK and Brits in the rest of the EU, but also Britons who wish to retain their EU status.
A third petition calls for a permanent instrument to prove free movement rights, such as a unified document of ‘laissez-passer’.
“Not been discussed in any sense”
All these actions have been initiated after the UK decision to leave the European Union. One of the proponents of the petition to uphold EU rights for British citizens is Tony Simpson of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Born in London from an Irish mother, he explains that at the heart of his initiative there is the issue of identity and of how people feel about being European. “The referendum last year left me shocked and shaken. I felt diminished because people are trying to take rights away from all of us,” he says. “It’s a deep difference personally to do without your European identity. This has not been discussed in any sense and is actually a failure of the debate in parliament, as there was no mention of citizenship in the referendum bill. What really bothers me is that there is a lot of unhappiness, a lot of harm has been done.”
With mounting frustration, Simpson looked at what to do and found the European Citizens’ Initiative. “I liked that this allowed to take action. I mentioned it to my colleagues. They were initially skeptical, but what persuaded them is that children will have fewer opportunities as a result of not being EU citizens.”
They started making contacts with other colleagues across Europe. But how to convince people from the EU27 to support the action, considering that the British government is far from reciprocating? “I don’t know whether we can convince people,” continues Simpson. “What is happening is that 44 years of European membership count for nothing and rights are being taken away from us. I can have Irish citizenship and my son can as well, but my wife can’t. People are looking at different ways to protect themselves. Some will be empathetic, others won’t. We had a good mobilization so far in Italy and Germany, but what really matter is raising the issue.”
European Citizens’ Initiative
Obtaining the amount of signatures to set the legislative process in motion will not be an easy task. Each initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens coming from at least one quarter of EU countries. A minimum number of signatories is required in each country. And this is only the beginning. If a registered initiative receives enough signatures within a year, the Commission must decide if acting upon it or not and explain the reasons for its choice. Then it will be about convincing EU member states.
European Citizens’ Initiatives are the latest addition to the rights enjoyed by EU citizens, as they were introduced with the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and launched in 2012. While aiming to improve people’s participation in the development of EU policies, they have been criticized for being too complicated. In the three years since the launch, the Commission received 51 requests, 31 were registered and only 3 reached the required support.
Citizens’ rights organisations have pointed at the difficulties of the system, in particular the short period allowed for the collection of signatures, the personal liability imposed on organisers and the loose follow-up when initiatives are successful.
In May the European Commission launched a public consultation to gather views on the revision of the tool (replies by 16 August 2017). A proposal in this regard is expected later this year. Meanwhile in Brussels, these and other citizens’ concerns about Brexit will be discussed at a roundtable on June 20th organised by the group European Citizen Action Service.
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
Photo by Mauro Bottaro © European Union, 2017.