Europe: the year of the Citizen

eYCmaen

Since November 1st 1993 Europe has been following a new path towards integration. The Maastricht Treaty, after many unsuccessful efforts in past years, created a new era and a new status for the citizens of the Member States, offering them rights, obligations and much more by giving them the unique characteristic of being citizens of Europe.

By then, all the people who have a nationality of any of the 27 EU member states are also EU citizens. This means that while they are citizens of their home country, with the rights and responsibilities that citizenship involves, they are also citizens of the European Union, with extra rights and duties [1] and this fact, consequently, underlines that nationals of an EU Member State are also citizens of the European Union. There are over 13.6 million EU citizens living in another Member State to their own, and around 210 million travelling each year within the European Union for business or leisure.

Moreover, The Amsterdam Treaty (1997) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) state unequivocally that citizenship of the EU ‘shall complement and not replace national citizenship’.[2] The Lisbon Treaty foresees a set of basic rights such us, but not limited to, the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States (under certain conditions laid down in the Treaties and the relevant Protocol.), the right to vote and stand as a candidate in elections of the European Parliament and municipal elections in the Member State of residence, the right to receive diplomatic and consular protection (in case a citizen is in the territory of a third country where his or her own Member State is not represented by a consular post or a diplomatic mission), the right to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman, to address institutions and advisory bodies of the EU and receive a reply and the citizens’ initiative which makes possible for one million citizens to invite the European Commission to submit appropriate proposals on issues falling within its competence and where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required.[3] Moreover, a core right and a basic founding value upon which citizenship is built is the right of non-discrimination. Protection of fundamental rights, the universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, citizenship and justice are founding principles of the Union and an indispensable prerequisite for its legitimacy [4]

As it is commonly known, The Treaty of Rome (1957) set out the idea of freedom of movement – that people should be allowed to move freely across national borders. European Community residents had already been carrying a symbol of shared European identity since 1988 when the first burgundy-coloured passports were issued by all Member States in an attempt to standardise travel documents across the area. [5] The idea of EU citizenship was first presented in the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and in 1999, the idea of citizenship gained another boost, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that EU citizenship should be a ‘fundamental status of nationals of Member States’. The Lisbon Treaty (2007) reinforced the idea set out in Maastricht as it is known today.

The European Year for Citizens is accompanied with the ongoing financial, economic and fiscal crisis which has contributed to the aggravation of the relations between European citizens and the EU. As Jürgen Habermas cited, the two-faced way in which the European governments have dealt with the financial crisis over the past two years is scandalous. They negotiate behind closed doors and doctor the results arrived at in Brussels for domestic consumption, out of fear of their own electorates. That foments mutual national prejudices and has corresponding effects on the public moods reflected in opinion polls.[6]

Current situation creates distrust for the E.U. and populism rises again in Europe. Far right parties steer people who live under the poverty limits; people that can’t stand the austeriy measures, the hardships and the unemployment and this has implications for the coming back to terms of ethno-national aggression. Moreover, the level of European citizens’ confidence in the EU institutions has undergone a steady decline over the past 5 years. Between 2007 and 2012, confidence in the Commission dropped from 52% to 36%, in the Parliament from 56% to 40%, and the Council from 47% to 40%.[7]

For this reason twelve new actions are going to be set into force in order to make EU citizens’ rights a reality and ameliorate their behavior concerning their view of the E.U. [8]  As Viviane Reding said, EU citizenship is the crown jewel of European integration. It is to Political Union what the euro is to our Economic and Monetary Union. And it deserves nothing less than concerted action to make it a reality for Europe’s 500 million EU citizens.[9] Certainly this underlines the importance of citizens for the European integration. We should not forget that The European Union is made up of, and should exist for, its citizens.

In 2014, the European citizens will be called to vote in the elections of the European Parliament. Since the first elections on June 1979, the EU average turnout at the European elections has fallen steadily, from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2009. Despite this, Europeans believe that the three best ways of making their voices heard by EU decision-makers are or to vote in European elections (57%), or through a European citizens’ initiative (29%) or to  writing to their MEP (19%).[10] Without a doubt, the participation in next year’s elections is of high importance. A high percentage of participation in the EU elections will offer a strong foundation for the legitimization of the representatives in the European Parliament, which has important competences after the Lisbon Treaty (principle of con-decision procedure between the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the Commission). Having rights implies the possession of obligations; the participation in the election is one of these.

To conclude, some people support that citizenship has been linked to national identity and that this cannot be transformed through a treaty. Sure, we can not judge if this opinion is right or wrong, but we should always remember that Europe has offered many things to its citizens such as the freedom to move around the EU in order to study or find work, peace and understanding across the continent and a perception of a common culture and common rights between its people. Europe now needs its citizens more than ever. Europe can’t survive without them.

Fotios Stravoravdis.

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