Have we lost our rights as EU Citizens with Brexit?
Unnoticed by many, the Brexit negotiations have been – and are being – conducted on the understanding that UK nationals lost their EU citizenship with the UK’s exit from the European Union as a Member State on 31 January 2020 at 11pm GMT. But is this legally correct?
Several court cases are currently pending before the European Court of Justice of the European Union to prove the contrary. We will report about the one which was recently brought from the UK in one of our next blog posts.
But before we do so, let’s dive into the concept of EU citizenship. Let’s discuss why it is so important to not only uphold it for those UK nationals who would like to keep it, but also strengthen and promote it for all currently 515 million EU citizens (note: this count includes all UK nationals as we firmly believe that they are still EU citizens, unless they have decided to give up their citizenship following an individual consultation process).
What is EU citizenship?
Most of those who have ever thought about this question will probably say that EU citizenship provides the right to freely travel, study, work and settle anywhere within the territory of the European Union.
This is true, and also very important, but EU citizenship is about a lot more.
The idea of a form of citizenship which brings together people with different European nationalities had been floated since the 1950s. But it was not until the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 that a ‘common’ EU citizenship was born.
Apart from free movement rights, it also provides holders with certain other rights, most of them of a political nature, and also mostly in relation to the EU.
In fact, it is safe to say that EU citizenship is a political rather than an ethnic concept.
For example, EU citizens have the right to vote and to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament. They can also participate in municipal elections of the Member State in which they reside; as well as petition the EU Parliament.
In addition, they ought to be protected by any consulate of an EU Member State in a third country, provided that their own country does not have a consulate in said country.
It’s important to clarify the difference between EU citizenship and the nationality of a Member State, as these are very different things.
According to the EU Treaties, EU citizenship is additional to nationality, and does not replace it. It’s an independent status, granted by the EU. It allows people from different nationalities to create a bond, based on the values which are promoted by the EU Treaties, such as the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Why must we protect EU citizenship?
The concept is far from perfect – for example, it could be argued that EU citizenship has also a restrictive side as it excludes a lot of people from the ‘club’ who do not have the nationality of an EU Member State at the point of acquisition but who share a similar world view and values.
However, it is currently the only model available in the world that brings people from different nationalities together through the bond of an international and supranational citizenship.
EU citizenship does not only guarantee the above rights of free movement, political participation and protection, which are, by the way, all ‘fundamental’ rights under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
It is rather a fundamental right itself.
Or, as Advocate General Maduro put it in his Opinion in the famous ECJ case Rottmann:
‘European citizenship is more than a body of rights which, in themselves, could be granted even to those who do not possess it. It presupposes the existence of a political relationship between European citizens, although it is not a relationship of belonging to a people. On the contrary, that political relationship unites the peoples of Europe.’
In line with this, for many, the European Union is a vehicle to inclusivity, openness, co-operation beyond national borders and historic divisions and ultimately a guarantor for peace – and EU citizenship is the personalised expression of this idea.
By exercising it, we can actively participate in this idea.
Let’s promote EU citizenship for more equality across Europe!
The fact that EU citizenship is based on an ideal rather than just a legal concept provides us with the chance to fill out the concept even further. Many rights that we now take for granted, such as studying in a different European country without paying international student fees or using our phone data abroad without roaming charges, did not come automatically but had to be fought for.
If we want Europe to be a continent that equally embraces human rights, values people’s talents and provides for their basic needs independent of where people are born or live, we could do so through EU citizenship.
So far, mostly the highly Europeanised have enjoyed the benefits of EU citizenship by freely moving and settling within Europe. Everyone now has the option to participate in the Erasmus programme, to work in Europe’s big metropoles like London, Amsterdam, Barcelona or to retire in the Mediterranean, while continuing to enjoy free healthcare across the continent. But currently only about 3% of Europe’s people make use of these possibilities.
So, how can EU citizenship benefit more of us and play a role even if we do not cross borders?
Could it support us in the fight against racism and discrimination? Could it help ensuring (equal) access to high-quality health care across Europe, even outside of big cities? Could it push for comparable funding for primary schools in all Member States? Could it guarantee equal pay for the same type of work across the continent? Could it advance affordable housing solutions? Could it, one day, be available for all people who live in Europe, regardless of their underlying nationality?
To bring to life the values enshrined in the EU Treaties through expanding the concept of EU citizenship well beyond the freedom of movement we will have to promote, campaign and fight to overcome differences between Member States, budgetary constraints and the EU’s complicated decision-making process.
As the past has shown, there are clear legal paths, through which we can enforce our claims for rights stemming from EU citizenship. So let’s start an upward movement of protecting EU citizenship, which in turn will lead to more awareness and then to an expansion of rights for all EU citizens ensuring a stronger Europe, where risks are shared, where benefits reach all Europeans, and where every person has a voice.
by Alexandra von Westernhagen and Philipp Gnatzy