Campaigners say EU citizenship should include more rights

What does EU citizenship mean? Which rights does it include and how should these change in the future? The questions will be asked at the Conference on the Future of Europe, the 11-month consultation organised by the European Union to get the opinion of citizens, parliaments, governments, public institutions and civil society organisations on how the EU should evolve in the coming decades.

While it is still unclear what the EU and national governments will do with these opinions, the discussion is ground for new initiatives to emerge, even outside official events.

One of these initiatives was launched on the eve of the first Conference plenary, on June 19th in Strasbourg. The ECIT Foundation and citizens’ rights group New Europeans called for more rights to be added to EU citizenship.

Created in 1992 through the Maastricht Treaty, EU citizenship has developed from the right to free movement, extending it from workers to all categories of the population. Additional to nationality, it is the first form of transnational citizenship that gives holders access to each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination, whether based on nationality, age, disability, race or sexual orientation.

But not all these rights work in practice and many have been tested by Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis. EU citizenship has been “rediscovered” in the wake of Brexit and the limits to free movement imposed during the pandemic, said Suzana Carp, board member of the ECIT Foundation and New Europeans.

So what does EU citizenship mean today? The ECIT Foundation proposed to bring together all the rights deriving from EU policies, and add new ones, in a Statute on European citizenship that better reflects current times.

Calling for a statute on European citizenship

“What you have on EU citizenship is scattered in different treaty articles, pieces of legislation, programmes and parliament committees. There is no clear focal point, so European citizenship at the moment is an abstraction,” said ECIT founder Tony Venables.

“But if you put together what exists… EU citizenship is a lot more than just rights. It includes also the other two features of citizenship, participation and belonging. You also see what is missing,” he added.

The statute proposes to expand EU citizenship to include “new European environmental, health and social rights,” together with the protection of personal data.

In addition to rights, the statute says European citizens and persons legally resident in the EU should have responsibilities, such as complying with each other’s constitutions and laws, learning and respecting “as equal to their own” the languages and cultures of other nations, and acting jointly “in order to overcome the major challenges facing Europe and the planet which are beyond the capacity of national citizenship”.

Good administration and “understandable rules” should underpin rights, which would be backed by legal aid and access to justice, the statute says. “Participatory democracy” should become common practice in EU decisions, and all EU citizens should have a right to be informed, to receive education for European citizenship and to participate in an exchange programme such as the Erasmus at some point in life.

The statute calls for a “free movement solidarity fund” to help vulnerable EU citizens and support their integration in the host society. A European universal basic minimum income would improve chances for young people to find employment in the EU, the text says.

Electoral rights of EU citizens living in other EU member states should also be extended to regional and national elections and referendums. Danish MEP Karen Melchior, from Renew Europe, supported the proposal warning that current rules are creating “a group of disenfranchised EU citizens who lose voting rights because they moved to another EU country.” Several EU states do not allow their citizens abroad to participate in general elections and EU directives grant only voting rights in local and European elections. 

In addition, everyone should have the choice to vote for candidates on transnational party lists in the election of the European Parliament.

Everyone should have a card containing their personal data and information on how to “become an active EU citizen,” according to the proposal.

“Where possible, the same European rights must be enjoyed now by European citizens and all those on the territory of the European Union and neighbouring countries,” the statute continues, “welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants” and “supporting European citizens in the rest of the world”.

The statute aksi aims to give non-EU citizens in the EU the opportunity to obtain the nationality of the country wheere they live, and therefore EU citizenship too.

The ECIT Foundation will open the statute to comments with the aim to present it to the Conference. A cross-party group at the European Parliament has been created to take the discussion forward. The group is supported by 13 MEPs from four political families, the European People’s Party, the Socialists & Democrats, Renew Europe, the Greens, and by a non-attached member.

Spanish MEP Maite Pagazaurtundúa argued there should be a “digital recognition of professional and university degrees” to promote mobility and said a reflection is needed on what being citizens means “in this century”.

“I would like to promote more rights to EU citizenship, but we need to keep cementing those already existing, especially the right of residence. Brexit provided ample evidence of that,” commented at the event Pierre-Yves Le Borgn, president of Europeans Throughout the World, an organisations for EU citizens living abroad.

German MEP Helmut Scholz, from the Left, added that “the cultural understanding” of what being Europeans means is still lacking and the Conference on the Future of Europe offers the opportunity to discuss “the values that brings us together”.

Managing expectations… and outcomes

Meanwhile, the Conference on the Future of Europe is collecting proposals on what the EU should do in the areas of climate change and the environment, health, employment and social affairs, values, democracy, migration, education, the digital transformation and its role in the world throught a digital platform. Participants can see what others propose, comment and endorse ideas.

Working groups and citizens panels, which are expected to involve 200 randomly selected people, should start to operate from the autumn. The final report will be presented during the French presidency of the EU Council, in the first half of 2022.

Richard Corbett, a former UK Labour MEP who is part of the Conference secretariat, said the goal is to “try and build consensus around ideas,” an exercise with “huge potential and huge risks”.

Niccolò Milanese, director of European Alternatives, an organisation promoting democracy beyond the nation-state, said the innovation of the Conference is to involve all European institutions so “no one can turn around and say this is not inside our competencies”.

Milanese said “it can be hard to make yourself heard in the EU” but demonstrations such as those in Bulgaria and Poland last year show “there is a civic energy out there… often coming from people who are excluded or are unable to claim their rights” and “what happens in the Conference is just as important is what happens outside.”

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo by Alain Schroeder, Source EC – Audiovisual Service © European Communities, 2003.

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