Common Understanding for Common Values: The European Citizenship of the Future

Officially born in Maastricht in 1993, European citizenship is unique in its kind: it is the first transnational citizenship of the modern era, and arguably the testimony of a prodigious path of integration among nations that, after years of troubled relations, finally came together to create the biggest area of democracy and freedom in the world. Almost thirty years later, European citizenship remains a highly topical issue for a number of reasons. In a general sense, it is pressured by the rise of populism, nationalism, as well as the constantly increasing constraining dissensus of national actors vis-à-vis supranational institutions. More specifically, however, recent developments, such as Brexit and attacks on the rule of law in some Member States, make a re-discussion of this form of citizenship ever more urgent.

European citizenship should be understood as additional to national citizenship in each Member State. Britons will find themselves divested of the former from January 2021, as the United Kingdom prepares to officially leave the bloc. The consequent loss of rights is among the issues discussed during the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Free movement of people itself is a topic of discussion: today, designing new ways to move between the EU and the UK is a matter of concern, just as it has been about fifteen years ago, following the accession of central and eastern European countries. In that case, history has taught us that nationalistic concerns were overstated and only contributed to a discriminatory framing of European citizenship by national parties. Time will tell whether we have learned anything from that experience.

In addition, European citizenship currently seems to be undergoing a stress test, as a result of internal attacks to the values attached to it. Threats to the rule of law and to individual freedoms, as well as ways to prevent and eventually sanction them, are hot topics on the European table at the moment. How can the European Union live up to its ambitions and keep defending the rights of its citizens, while also promoting them to the outside world? In other words, how can common values be enhanced in an effective way through EU-wide policies in the years to come, and despite the challenges these values are undergoing at present? Several lines of action have been outlined in the event Limited Voting Rights, Golden Passports and Brexit – How to Make EU Citizenship Future-Proof, held by the European Liberal Forum and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation on 18 November 2020. It could be argued that, in order to make our transnational citizenship future-proof, a variety of actors should work along four main lines: revision of European democracy and its decision-making mechanisms, stronger defense of fundamental values including the rule of law, expansion of existing rights and creation of new ones as part of EU citizenship, as well as  European civic education.

I. Revising European Democracy

The issue of democratic accountability in the European Union is not new. It is not unusual to come across the notion of ‘democratic deficit’, and this is arguably among the main causes driving citizens away from the European integration process, and consequently from the values attached to it. Alberto Alemanno has rather defined it as a ‘lack of intelligibility’[1] of the European system, where what matters most to the citizen-voter is the national level. Problems arise not only when EU politics are perceived as distant and unimportant – resulting in European elections being seen as ‘second degree’ ones – but also when the national and the supranational are even put into conflict, as the dialectic of the system tends to suggest. If until some recent times it was believed that the Spitzenkandidaten system would overcome this flaw, history – and especially the 2019 elections – have questioned it.

The necessary Europeanization of the political space will sure have to be accompanied by a review of the rules of the representation game – transnational lists and cross-border voting, among others. However, a direct involvement of citizens in the decision-making process is essential to enhance their trust in and understanding of the European public space. Existing participatory tools, such as the European Citizens Initiative must be not only popularized and made more accessible, but new ones could be designed in order to effectively reach out to the wider European population. A feeling of belonging to the same public sphere could be enhanced not only by the idea that we all vote for the same institutions, in order to tackle common issues, but also by a more systematic ‘coming together’ of Europeans wishing to actively make a change in their common, transnational polity.

II. Defense of our Rights and Values, Including the Rule of Law

“European citizenship is a worldwide unique concept that confers values to us”. (Carmen Descamps-Gerstenmeyer)

Freedom of movement is largely seen as the main achievement of European integration: the possibility of moving across borders without obstacles, of settling in another Member States freely, and of simply travelling across Europe without a visa is indeed a very tangible success. It is one that has contributed to bringing European together in the first place. However, freedom of movement is only one of the many rights already attached to European citizenship. Many more are the liberties conferred to us as Europeans, codified in the Treaties as well as in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. If these might seem less evident than freedom of movement, it must be borne in mind that they contribute to make the EU the biggest area of freedom and democracy in the world, and that the EU is daily working to maintain high standards of protection of such rights and values.

Sure, more can be done, especially in the light of constant attacks to such rights and values from within the Union. When judicial independence and press freedom are challenged, when civil liberties and individual rights are denied to European citizens, it becomes evident that our values must be defended more ambitiously and in a more pragmatic manner. This surely involves rule of law conditionality attached to the disbursement of EU funds, and it involves a stronger, clearer position of the Commission in defense of fundamental rights, as witnessed in recent months. However, it should also involve more robust alert systems to prevent and sanction democratic backsliding within the EU. The Commission is taking important steps in this direction, with its Rule of Law report and the Rule of Law dialogue: however, an assessment of the efficacy of these new tools will only be possible in the years to come. In addition, the role of the European Parliament as directly elected body should be central in this process. Former MEP Judith Sargentini put forward the idea of ‘new Copenhagen criteria’[2] for countries that have already accessed the EU. This could be very relevant in the defense of the rule of law by the Parliament, when considering the often ‘big excluded’ from effective processes of sanctioning violations.

It is indeed clear that the Council alone is ineffective in addressing such topical issues, mainly due to two main reasons. First, the rules of the game impose unanimity on issues that will not realistically reach it – article 7 to impose sanctions on States that violate fundamental values, for instance. Second, political interests, alliances, and the balance of power across Member States often lead to stalemate when it comes to taking strong positions against violations. The Courts have a role to play in this situation, and they are playing it well. However, Dimitry Kochenov and Petra Bárd propose a more serious consideration of the constitutional role of the judiciary[3]: if the Treaties and the Charter are our Constitution, defending the rights of European citizens, the Court of Justice and national courts must live up to such high level of defense. In general, the rule of law and fundamental rights must be mainstreamed in the daily work of European and national institutions. Only then will a rule of law culture, a real European culture, be manifest and effectively enhanced across the Union.

III. Introducing New Rights

Without underestimating the progress made over recent decades, it must be acknowledged that new rights must be included if we are to really achieve an inclusive, wide-reaching model of European citizenship. The rationale underlying this is simple: if we are all European citizens, but only a few  rights are commonly reflected across the continent, whereas others are unevenly applied and continue to diverge, European citizenship clearly suffers from an existential flaw. Economic rights are rather homogeneous across the Union, and so should fundamental values – although a French woman is arguably freer than a Polish one, and the EU is to be reversing this alarming trend with due timing. However, there are several rights that are not attached to European citizenship, despite being its logical consequence. Taking voting rights as an example, freedom of movement has granted all Europeans the possibility to establish their residence in a Member State different from the one of origin, without having to claim nationality of the host state. This is justified on the grounds of our common European citizenship. However, voting rights of those who choose to move across borders are mutilated: voting in elections other than municipal and European ones is not allowed in the state of residence, and disenfranchisement from the country of origin as a consequence of moving is a reality for many Europeans. This results in a large democratic deficit, in the exclusion of a big part of the population from the political process, and ultimately in lost opportunity for the Europeanization of the public sphere. The issue could be tackled, as part of a Europe-wide electoral reform aiming at making the political domain more European, as was mentioned in the first section of this piece. It is unthinkable to build an effective transnational citizenship, if those who enjoy it are excluded from having a say in the political process.

IV. The Role of Civic Education

What is the European Union? What are its aims and mechanisms? What is European citizenship? Three apparently simple questions, that most European citizens will hardly be able to answer. The responsibility is on a generalized lack of awareness due to a lack of education about European issues. The shortcomings of this situation are ever more alarming in pandemic times, when more issues are more abruptly and more evidently Europeanized.

The NECE Declaration rightfully defines the times we are living in as ‘a watershed moment for citizenship education in Europe’. It identifies clear recommendations to EU and national Institutions in order to be effective on this front. All Institutions playing a role in the matter have a responsibility to take action on citizenship education in a rapidly changing world, where digitalization, climate change, political and economic processes have an enormous impact on daily lives and therefore need to be thoroughly understood.

Nota bene: this should not be understood as a paternalistic approach vis-à-vis the European population. Education does not have to be top-down, but can and should follow a participatory approach, in which  citizens provide input on their matters of concern. Here, the role of youth is key in order to build a future-proof Europe capable of addressing the issues of our time in a sustainable, long-term fashion. At the same time, however, we should not promote the idea that merely youth should be the target of education. Life-long learning should be mainstreamed, especially in an ever-changing world, which requires ever-changing keys of understanding. Only with a common, comprehensive stance on (civic) education can our public sphere be fully Europeanized and EU processes finally become intelligible to all citizens.

Conclusion

Interesting times call for ambitious reforms. European citizenship is an ambitious plan whose success is tangible although partial, and it is now up to every European to complete the process. To do so, several steps must be taken in order to mainstream a European mentality that can effectively defend and actively promote the values that our common citizenship is based on. This short piece has focused on four lines of action for a future-proof European citizenship, starting from citizens’ involvement, to the defense of existing rights and the establishment of new ones, to the key role of education.

What is clear is the importance to popularize EU citizenship, so that it is no longer seen as an affair of a few privileged walking around the Brussels European quarter, but to finally make it a matter of concern for all citizens of the Union. The Conference on the Future of Europe, supposed to be held in the months to come, represents a tremendous opportunity for this popularization and to ultimately have an impact in trends that too often are perceived as distant by the wider public. Every citizen must have a say in this: Europeans of all ages, origins, beliefs, sexual orientations, social backgrounds are equally concerned with what is going on in our Union and in the world. It is high time for everyone to understand what a privilege it is to be European and to actively take part in shaping the Europe of the future.

Beniamino Brunati

ECIT Foundation / Voters Without Borders



[1] Alberto Alemanno in Limited Voting Rights, Golden Passports and Brexit – How to Make EU Citizenship Future-Proof

[2] Sargentini J., Dimitrovs A. (2016) “The European Parliament’s Role: Towards New Copenhagen Criteria for Existing Member States?”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 54(5), pp. 1085-1092

[3] Kochenov D., Bárd P. (2018) Rule of Law Crisis in the New Member States of the EU – The Pitfalls of Overemphasising Enforcement, RECONNECT — Reconciling Europe with its Citizens through Democracy and Rule of Law