How to consolidate EU rights in a context of change: new initiative in Brussels

A foundation in Brussels aims to deepen the discussion on EU citizens’ rights in light of the social and political change that has crossed Europe in recent years.

From the refugee crisis to Brexit, free movement of people – and the rights deriving from it – is increasingly put in question. Yet, according to a Eurobarometer survey, this European Union principle is also considered one of the biggest achievements of the bloc. So what have been the failures that led to the current opposition? And how to deal with them?

The ECIT Foundation (European Citizens’ Rights, Involvement and Trust) was established to answer these questions and make proposals to deepen the concept of European citizenship. Founded in 2015 by Tony Venables, a former EU official who also opened European Citizen Action Service (another group focusing on citizens’ rights), the Foundation organises each year a “summer university on European citizenship.” This year’s event is planned from 30 August to 1 September. Brexit and the risk it poses for the ability of people to move easily across countries features high on the agenda.

According to Eurostat, the EU statistical office, 3% of the EU population (14.3 million out of 507 million) live in another EU country. A recent report by the ECIT Foundation, however, argues that these data do not include seasonal or posted workers who move for temporary jobs, or cross-border workers who commute between place of residence and place of work. These categories could add another 1.6 million to the total. Also, it is estimated that 10% of Europeans have experienced living for a period of time in another EU country. And technology is contributing to bringing down borders too. The Foundation says that networking beyond borders and “virtual” mobility, may be practiced by 30% of EU citizens. “Sociological Europe is much bigger than the Europe to create a single European labour market and very different from political Europe,” says the report.

Free movement under threat

The study explains that free movement of people has always been at the centre of the EU debate, but in recent years it has come under threat for a number of reasons. The first is the approach taken on the EU accession of Central and Eastern European countries, in 2004 and 2007. Before then, the number of people moving across Europe was “sufficiently low to avoid attracting attention.” But the arguments on restricting access to the labour market for the latest EU members “raised fears of competition for jobs and undercutting of wages in the old EU-15 and a sense of being treated as second class citizens for people moving from the new member states.”

Second, the economic crisis of 2007 has led to a return of nationalism and the rise of eurosceptical parties. In areas with high unemployment and stagnant wages, this has been fuelled by the perception of newcomers as a threat. At the same time, traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ parties have almost disappeared.

Third, free movement goes in specific directions (south to north and east to west Europe), but social services have not necessarily adjusted to this reality.

Fourth, there are growing divisions between Eastern and Western European countries in relation to the EU asylum policy and this debate has merged with the one on internal migration.

Finally, adds ECIT, “there has been a failure of political discourse” and even mainstream parties have ceded to the association of free movement of people within the EU to “an increasingly toxic debate about immigration and the perceived failure of migration policies.” The study mentions in particular the case of the UK: “Speeches by leading politicians, which fail to make a clear distinction between free movement of people within the EU and immigration, will feed prejudice.”

As European citizens’ rights are threatened by this new climate, the Foundation aims to study trends and make proposals to address them. “Over the years, there has been a natural progression on EU citizenship but also a narrow focus of the debate on European rights,” explains Tony Venables. “Citizenship is much more than that. It is about participation, education and culture. Our aim is to break these silos bringing together groups that work on different aspects of EU citizenship.”


Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
Photo via Pixabay.

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