Opinion

Towards a new European citizenship

European Union

The very Preamble of the current Treaty on European Union proclaims that the Member States are DETERMINED to create a citizenship common to the nationals of their countries. In reality, European citizenship was not created by this Treaty, but was already a major contribution of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, providing it with rights that the Union granted to all nationals of its Member States.

That creation was a revolution in the law. Until then, and after a long evolution (María Ángeles Pérez Samper explains it in detail) in which, following the French Revolution, citizenship had been defined as a link between a person and a State that conferred rights and obligations, the new citizenship created by the EU created a new link, superimposed on the previous one, since all citizens of the EU Member States came to have complementary rights that linked them to a supra-national organisation. A new legal institution was created, with enormous added value, distinct from classical citizenship. This new legal institution and its possibilities for development will be the subject of these new reflections that we will be publishing over the next few days.

What are citizenship rights? Strictly speaking, both the Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights list the right to vote and stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament and the right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections, the right to good administration, the right of access to documents, the right of access to the European Ombudsman, the right to petition and to address the institutions in the official language of one's state and receive a reply in that language, freedom of movement and residence, and the right to diplomatic and consular protection. 

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Throughout the treaties, however, citizenship is the subject of regulations conferring other rights, for example, when regulating the democratic life of the Union, it is stipulated that the institutions shall make it easier for citizens and the associations representing them to express their views to them, so that an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative organisations and civil society can take place, including by organising consultations; It also regulates the so-called citizens' legislative initiative, which consists of being able to propose that the Commission draw up a regulation on the basis of a petition of one million signatures of European citizens collected in a significant number of Member States.

On other occasions, the reference to citizenship is made to ensure that decision-making is as close as possible, or that the administrative or tax burdens imposed by any authority (including those of the Member States or regional or local authorities) are as small and proportionate to their objectives as possible. 

There are also regulations, for example, in relation to the states that form part of the Schengen Area, to control the access of citizens of third states to the territory of the Union, as free movement without the existence of borders is reserved for European citizens, as a right superimposed on nationality as belonging to a Member State; reference is also made to citizenship in the regulation of the European area of freedom, security and justice, or in the European area of higher education; thus the distinction between European citizen and citizen from third countries appears, which can give rise to different legal situations.

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We could therefore point out many other references to citizenship, scattered throughout the Treaties and their Protocols, which it would be good to systematise in some way, as was intended in the Citizenship Statute promoted by Maite Pagazazaurtundua MEP in the previous legislature, given the huge number of people who live and work on a stable basis within the Union but who, not having the nationality of a Member State (sometimes it is impossible for them to obtain it because it depends on internal nationality laws) do not have access to these rights. Sometimes, as with the right we have, as Europeans, to consular protection in third countries by any accessible representation of a Member State, we manage to extend it to certain family members, but not always.

Some voices are raised about extending voting rights to European residents who are settled in any Member State. The Treaties link the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament and in local elections to both citizenship and residence, as any European citizen can exercise these rights in his or her country of residence, not only in the country of which he or she is a national. Joao Piroto, for example, advocates extending active and passive suffrage to the state of residence, in order to better link the Union with citizenship, also favouring a reduction in the abstentionism that usually prevails in European elections, while opening up the regulation, with the necessary precautions to avoid double voting; It also takes account of the bureaucratic obstacles that still affect voting in European and local elections, where in many Member States there are still significant obstacles to voting by post or through consulates.

Certainly, with technical advances, we could think about how to facilitate the exercise of these rights, and many others, since today we are already talking about digital citizenship rights, which, in the words of Enrique Goñi, need to be identified, disseminated and protected. Let us not forget that the processing of data, the functioning of the economy or, to give a few examples, compliance with effective judicial protection, require an appropriate European digital environment. Of course, to do so, the idea that access to the internet should be a universal right should be made effective, as various people and organisations have been promoting, especially since the pandemic confined us to a digital environment that is here to stay, and which should not generate gaps or discriminatory situations in the exercise of rights.

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The link between citizenship, closer decision-making and integration of the city in the European framework, as advocated by Santiago Castellá, should also be highlighted. Thus, as it is residence which, in addition to nationality, determines citizenship in such a way that those who form part of a political community are those who reside with a certain vocation of permanence in it, this implies the emergence of the local Europe, of the city, as a structuring element of today's Europe. Breaking with the traditional exclusive link between nationality and citizenship, in which the foreigner was excluded, the value of effective residence, with rights linked to it, makes the city emerge as the cosmopolitan cradle of democratic coexistence and liberal tolerance. For Castellá, this has an extraordinary symbolic value, as it provides basic principles in the face of essentialist identitarianism and illiberal policies.

And he is right, because, as Folchi stresses, global solutions must be provided to global problems, especially in the current context, in which the pre-eminence of the territorially or economically giant states forces the rest of the states to join forces in order to escape irrelevance. For the author, this does not exclude the importance of the municipal framework, since it is necessary to govern globalisation, de-bureaucratising it, and it is there, at the local level, where we often have to find answers close to the challenges of mobility, pollution, energy transition, housing or the fight against inequality or exclusion. 

It is in the European framework where, together with the national, regional or local framework, civil society can effectively develop the set of rights that could be considered as citizenship rights. This would imply, for Aldo Olcese, that European citizenship should be conceived as a common feeling on the part of Europeans. We have a complicated history that, until the second half of the 20th century, has been punctuated by wars between Europeans (let us not forget the war in the Balkans either), we do not have a common language (since the language that we accepted as a lingua franca for reasons of necessity is no longer an official language in any of the member states with Brexit). But we are also beginning to have some experience of organised civil society, which participates in the democratic life of the Union, in public consultations, in dialogues with citizens, in the same Conference on the future of Europe in the framework of which we offer these reflections. 

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And this opens up a more hopeful future because, as Santiago Ripol notes, the defence of the interests of Europeans is a constant in the history of the EU, especially when we are affected by global problems such as terrorism, or the economic crisis, or the pandemic we are experiencing. Citizens have also been at the centre of the EU's economic concerns, through the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, since European integration does not only affect political representatives, but Europeans themselves, who must play a more prominent and active role in setting priorities.

Brexit has shown us, from another point of view, the dark side of the regulation of European citizenship, as it is linked to having the nationality of one of the EU member states. Indeed, by leaving the EU, UK citizens ceased to be European citizens and lost the citizenship rights attached to that status, and the rest of us European citizens lost them in the UK as well. In the words of Juan Antonio Cordero, the European citizenship supplement is granted or withdrawn to the states, as they transmit it, administer it or withdraw it, with all the effects that this has on people's daily lives. The author recalls that this was not the case when federalism was consolidated in the United States, since the federal union is considered in the Constitution as non-reversible, and this has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of the federation itself. It therefore considers, somewhat boldly, that there is no European citizenship without an indestructible Union.

Perhaps this, the indestructible reinforcement of European citizenship should entail not only a strengthening of the institutions and better regulation in the Treaties, but also the formation of that will to live together to which we referred earlier. For this reason, the Union is also based on the values which, according to Art. 2 TEU, are essential to be part of it and the jeopardising of which can give rise to the sanction procedure for infringement of values. Indeed, a community cannot be founded in an axiological vacuum; it must be able to transmit an idea-force that makes its members, its citizens, feel proud of them, respect them and promote them together, in the sense of that active and conscious citizenship so dear to Bobbio. 

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We cannot forge Europe around national, ethnic, linguistic or historical identitarianism. Fortunately, this was already understood in this way by the founding fathers and has been progressively reinforced in successive treaties. From antiquity (Titus Livy or Cicero) to modernity (Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau) or the advocates of world peace such as Kant or the utopians... even in Kelsen with his statist and positivist vision, the homeland, as a community, has been assimilated to the law and institutions of the country, generating the idea of a civic recognition or adherence to it, which was not to be betrayed. Habermas, deepening Sternberger, originated a debate that we also had within the Convention for the Future of Europe, when we tried to adopt a Constitution for Europe, basing the so-called constitutional patriotism on the rights of political participation and social and economic democracy, not only for us, but also for future generations. The Constitution could not be adopted due to the resistance of some Member States, but the principles and values that underpinned it have remained in the current Treaty of Lisbon, because constitutional democracy has been, from this perspective, a paradigm with a universal vocation.

Therefore, although the process of European integration has sometimes been little understood by citizens and I dare say that many politicians do not understand it either, intellectually speaking, we are faced with an idea that, although misunderstood, is very solid. They have not understood it despite the fact that the idea of a united Europe, on the basis of a federative model, has been forged in parallel with the evolution of the regulation of policies, thus generating a system that also understands European citizenship as a valid and extremely useful instrument in the fight against the nationalisms and populisms that seek to destroy what we have been building for more than six decades now. Citizenship and its rights, based on representative democracy and supported by participatory democracy, according to the Treaties, are a bulwark from which to face the challenges of this complicated global world. 

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We therefore urge the Conference on the Future of Europe to promote bringing the EU closer to its citizens, strengthening the links between citizens and institutions, integrating residents of third countries with roots in the Union, making it easier for the green and digital Europe that is now at the heart of European policies to be built on people, facilitating the connection with civil society and, in short, adopting a citizenship statute that systematically organises the rights linked to this new citizenship and provides them with better guarantees of effectiveness, so that the EU can achieve its objectives, within the framework of respect for the values of the rule of law, democracy and human rights that have presided over it since its origins.

Teresa Freixes, Professor of Constitutional Law and Jean Monnet Professor ad personam, as well as Vice-President of the Royal European Academy of Doctors and President of Citizens pro Europe.