Associate EU citizenship for British nationals a distant dream

A much-awaited vote on the proposal to grant associate EU citizenship to British nationals after Brexit, planned at the European parliament on December 8th, was postponed to next year. The idea is raising hopes for Britons who voted to stay in the EU and want to keep strong ties with the continent, “but there is a long way to go to make this a reality,” said the proponent.

The proposal is mentioned in an amendment to a report tabled by Charles Goerens, a Luxembourg’s member of the European parliament. The parliament “advocates to insert in the treaties a European associate citizenship for those who feel and wish to be part of the European project but are nationals of a former Member State,” it says. Associate citizens would enjoy freedom of movement and the right to reside in the EU, as well as of being represented in the European parliament. In exchange, they would pay an annual membership fee into the EU budget.

The proposal is a novelty, as it detaches some citizenship rights from national borders. But it could prove controversial too.

Cyprus and Malta offer citizenship by investment programmes, whereby large investors are able to get the national (and therefore European) passport without necessarily having to reside in the country. Three years ago, however, the European parliament criticized these programmes for being discriminatory and because the “Union’s common values and achievements […] cannot have a price tag attached to them.”

The Goerens amendment was tabled to a report on the future institutional set up of the European Union prepared by Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and Brexit negotiator for the European parliament. The report, which contains proposals for a new treaty, was voted by a parliamentary committee on Thursday and will be passed by the parliament plenary session in February. Before the vote, Verhofstadt proposed to withdraw Goerens amendment and include it in another report on the European parliament position for the Brexit negotiations. This report will be voted in spring 2017.

“The commemoration of the founding Treaty of Rome in March should mark a new beginning for the European Union. But some things cannot wait until treaty change, as foreseen in this report. Therefore, the ability to keep European citizenship for those who risk losing it will be on the table of the upcoming Brexit negotiations and will be discussed at the moment of the parliament’s resolution, right after the triggering of Article 50 in March,” he said.

The British press covered the story with sensationalistic headlines. “UK ‘associate EU citizenship’ to be fast-tracked,” wrote the BBC on its website. “EU negotiators will offer Brits an individual opt-in to remain EU citizens,” was the title on The Independent. The proces, however, is not as straight forward.

First, the amendment will have to be voted by the parliament’s constitutional affairs committee. Second, it will have to pass the vote of the full parliament. At that point, it will be part of the European parliament recommendations on the Brexit negotiations. These are not binding. The European parliament will be represented in the negotiations and will have to approve the final deal. But while the European Commission leads the process, it is the Council – which represents the national governments – that has the most important role.

In the current situation it is hard to believe that countries like Poland, which has the largest population of EU nationals in the UK, or Spain, which hosts the largest portion of British in the EU, would agree to such proposal without any form of reciprocity. The British government has so far refused to provide guarantees on the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and in recent years it has made the procedure to acquire permanent residence or citizenship more expensive and burdensome.

In addition, a treaty change will still be necessary, as the Lisbon treaty associates the EU citizenship to the nationality of a Member State. “Initial talks with other parliamentarians regarding my amendment have been positive, but there is a long way to go to make this a reality,” wrote Goerens.

The prospect of an associate EU citizenship after Brexit will not materialise so easily. If they are keen on it, British citizens will have to fight for it being aware that the parliament vote is the first step. But the final outcome will largely depend on the Council, in other words the national governments, where the real decision-making power has always been.


Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.

Photo: Hearing at the European Parliament on fundamental rights and the rule of law: the role of the judiciary © European Union 2016.

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