Idea of EU Citizenship Still Intangible for Most Europeans

Published originally on May 29

From Thursday 6 until Sunday 9 June, Europeans from 27 member states will be hitting the polls in a vote with heavy stakes for the climate transition, immigration and democracy. But to what extent do these voters define themselves as Europeans? Will their ballot be driven by continental issues dear to Brussels, national considerations, or the populism that’s become increasingly evident across the continent?

National Lenses

According to the April Eurobarometer survey, 60 percent of Europeans claim to be interested in this election – that’s an increase of 11 percent compared with 2019. Member states’ political parties are also well aware of the importance of the elections, having shown up on campaign trails throughout the bloc in the past weeks. However, the campaign is still heavily influenced by national issues. For example, in France, from where I write, questions of purchasing power and national security dominate the airwaves, despite the fact that these subjects correspond to areas that fall mainly within the authority of member states and in the EU can play only a limited and indirect role.

Voters should make no mistake about what is at stake: these elections are an opportunity for them to exercise their European citizenship by taking up European issues. However, it has to be said that Europeans have made very little of their EU citizenship.

This is borne out by a 2023 Eurobarometer survey carried out in the 27 EU Member States, as well as 39 non-EU countries. 58 percent of those questioned said they felt a sense of attachment to the EU – 3 percentage points lower than in the previous survey. This represents a low level of identification compared to that with the nation state, with 91 percent of Europeans saying they felt attached to their country.

As for the European Union, 72% of interviewees feel they are EU citizens. Asked what elements could create a sense of European community, 23 percent cited values and the economy, 22 percent culture, 21 percent solidarity and 20 percent the rule of law. Finally, 58 percent said they were aware of their rights tied to EU citizenship, while 70 percent said they would like to know more.

European Citizenship has Existed for 30 years. But do Europeans Know About it?

Has EU citizenship missed its target? Once upon a time, it was a promising concept. Introduced by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, it responded to Member States’ desire to move beyond the notion of trade alliance by developing a sense of belonging to a political project.

Formally, EU citizenship is undeniably effective, bestowing a set of civil and political rights, including that to vote and stand for election at the European Parliament. But although it has celebrated its 30th anniversary, it remains evasive for most.

No doubt its features make it ambiguous and abstract. In fact, even if the treaty frames it as an added value – especially when it comes without any explicit duties – its dependence on the nationality of a Member State gives it a superfluous character.

Democratic practices also reinforce this minor status, since elections to the European Parliament are organised within the borders of member states, with national rather than transnational lists, and electoral campaigns are structured nationally.

Furthermore, EU rights are hardly perceptible. The right to vote and stand for election to the parliament existed before the introduction of European citizenship. Above all, many of these rights are mainly enjoyed by Europeans who are temporarily or permanently resident in another member state. EU citizenship allows Europeans living in a member state other than their own to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections. When an EU citizen is in a country outside the bloc where their nation doesn’t have a diplomatic presence, they have the right to the protection of another member state – a real legal added value.

What’s more, most of EU rights aren’t reserved to the bloc’s citizens alone, but also extend to third-country nationals and companies – for example, the right to petition the European Parliament and to refer matters to the European ombudsman. The same applies to the right to good administration and the right of access to EU institutional documents. Finally, the main features of European citizenship, derived from the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality, hail from a rich but complex and little-known body of case law.

Bringing Europe Closer to its Citizens

European citizenship has been shaped by the theory of constitutional patriotism – the reasons for joining may stem not from geographical proximity or kinship, but from attachment to a shared political culture based on a common history and values.

EU citizenship is everything but artificial, drawing its roots from a rich religious, intellectual and cultural heritage harking back to the 11th century.

Since then, exchanges between Europeans – most notably in the area of trade – have forged a European culture based on the principles of freedom, equality and human dignity. This is why the Court of Justice has described European citizenship as a fundamental status of nationals of the member states (ECJ, 20 September 2001, Grzelczyk judgment). Not only does it establish a legal and political relationship between them and the Union, but it also makes it possible to offer Europeans the same legal and political status.

To compensate for European citizenship’s perceived legal weaknesses, it’s necessary to raise awareness on this shared history, culture and values.

Indeed, while the creation of a European citizenship was a bold step, its associated rights are not enough to build a political community. Law alone cannot bring Europe closer to the heart of Europeans, especially when the EU’s institutional organisation is hard to grasp. And by placing too much emphasis on the union’s economic contributions, its promoters are making European citizenship and its democratic substance less perceptible.

It’s essential to encourage initiatives aimed at promoting a genuine European public sphere. For example, at my home institution, the Université Bretagne Sud in France, we have simulated debates at the European Parliament, while the European Movement association enabled secondary-school students to visit EU institutions in Brussels. The results speak for themselves: participants all felt a palpable sense of “unity in diversity” and European citizenship.The Conversation


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anne-Sophie Lamblin-Gourdin
Anne-Sophie Lamblin-Gourdin is professor of public law and member of LabLEX (Laboratoire de recherche en droit, UR 7480) at Université Bretagne Sud (UBS)

You may also like

Comments are closed.