monograph · Do Europeans Exist?
Do Europeans Exist?
From the establishment of the European Communities until the Lisbon Treaty – the last amending treaty to date – we saw the consolidation of the unique phenomenon of the construction of a Europe united by economic links but also by ever-stronger social and cultural values and ties, although this phenomenon has by no means been untouched by crisis, to a greater or lesser extent. Between the initial emergence of three distinct – but closely linked – international organisations, and the advent of today’s European Union, much has changed in Europe and the world, but the tangible existence of a genuine European citizenship, not only as a legal construct but also as an idea shared by Europeans, has become a decisive factor in the Union’s present and future.
A little more than a decade after the failed draft constitution for Europe, which included the Charter of Fundamental Rights and important references to European citizenship (a failure mitigated somewhat by the Treaty of Lisbon, which gave the Charter the same legal value as the Treaties), the Union now faces undeniable problems and difficulties on its path towards greater European integration that should alert us to the need for unstinting work to maintain and strengthen the freedoms of our citizens. In Europe’s ever-tumultuous recent history, two events have brought these always latent difficulties to the fore as a result of the severity of the repercussions we are currently suffering.
The first of these was the economic crisis which since 2008 has shaken – although to varying degrees of intensity – the Member States and which has hit Europe’s peoples particularly badly, causing shockwaves to run through society questioning the EU’s action and policies, inevitably contaminating its institutions and, ultimately, the whole structure of the Union. This Union, already weakened by the economic and financial crisis, was then hit by a second event of major importance: the United Kingdom’s referendum on EU membership (the ‘Brexit’ referendum). On 23 June 2016, citizens of the UK, which had been an EU Member State since 1973, and thus a part of Europe’s citizenry, were called to the polls to decide whether the United Kingdom should ‘remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union.’ The outcome, with a turnout of 72%, was a small but decisive majority in favour of leaving the EU (51.9% versus 48.1%). This widely unexpected result puts us in an unusual situation of extraordinary complexity, which has caused one of the most serious largest institutional crises since the creation of the Communities. The United Kingdom had already held another referendum (the ‘referendum on the Common Market’ and ‘referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community’) asking the same question in 1975, barely two years after its accession, whose outcome had been favourable to membership (by 67%). Via the ‘Brexit’ decision, a part of Europe’s citizenry has expressed its desire to cease being European citizens. The reasons for this are complex, and are outside the scope of this brief commentary, but it needs to be stressed that the European citizens of the United Kingdom have voted overwhelmingly to give up their citizenship of the European Union, which they have blamed for their country’s social and economic regression. Now more than ever, the Union must strive to raise awareness of the true extent of what it means to be a European citizen. And it must do this because behind both the economic crisis – which has undermined so much of the social progress achieved in the past last decades – and the British withdrawal from the EU there remain millions of people that hold on to the European ideal and conserve a real hope that we can build a Europe of social progress and freedom. Millions of Europeans share a vision and a sense of belonging to a group which has a clear identity and is identifiable to third parties: the idea and feeling of being European. This idea and this feeling are more than mere abstractions; they are part of a legal reality and this should be one of the EU’s major strengths. The EU of today is the most complete example of a supranational organisation ever known. Its institutional makeup and, in particular, the fact it has created its own legal system, which is integrated into the domestic law of the Member States through the transfer of powers to the Union, set this this supranational organisation apart from all others. It is important to note, as we have mentioned, that the EU is not only a legal reality but also a social community, a genuine, free and pluralistic European society grounded in solidarity and founded on the values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, namely respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are upheld and advocated by the EU and common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail, and are proclaimed Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. The commitment of the Union to respect cultural and linguistic diversity, which European legitimately hold dear, the fight against social exclusion and discrimination, inter-generational solidarity and the safeguarding of the rights of the most vulnerable supplement the Union’s commitment to its citizens.
As well as safeguarding these values the Union also advocates, on its own initiative, peace and promotes the well-being of its peoples. This well-being and other progress is to be pursued within a fair economic and social framework, as set out in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, in which the rights of Europe’s citizens are vigorously protected. This is our overarching challenge. If the European Union manages to send the right message about its aims and objectives, European citizenship will strengthen the idea of Europe as a political and social community. Recent events would appear to demonstrate that it remains a long way from achieving that objective.
But despite all that, we can still answer in the affirmative to the question posed by this publication: yes, Europeans do exist. This answer does need to be qualified, however. As we know, European citizenship was established in the Treaty on European Union with main objective of strengthening the concept of a European identity and thereby going beyond the established notion that the European communities were essentially focused on economic convergence by bringing the EU’s work into the political and social spheres. European citizenship was supposed to be the link uniting all Europeans, regardless of their respective nationalities, and binding them to supranational institutions and policies. European citizenship was, therefore, a paradigm for overcoming the singular – nationality – and integration into the global – Europe for all – as an expression of a new political community. European citizenship is granted to every person holding the nationality of a Member State; it is a bonus complementing, and not replacing, citizenship of a Member State (Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). All EU citizens enjoy a sort of dual nationality, since by virtue of being a national of a Member State of the EU they are also specifically granted European citizenship.
But what is the essence of European citizenship? The most direct and pertinent consequence of European citizenship is that it confers a genuine legal status, that of European citizen, bringing a wide-ranging – and not always well known – catalogue of rights including, but not limited to, the right to move and reside freely within the territory of any Member State; the right to vote and to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament and in municipal elections in their Member State of residence, under the same conditions as nationals of that State; the, collective, right to submit citizens’ initiatives petitioning the European Commission to adopt legislation; the right to consular protection from the consular authorities of any EU Member State in a third country in which the citizen’s own Member State does not have consular authority; the right to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman, and to address the institutions and advisory bodies of the Union in any of the Treaty languages and to obtain a reply in the same language.
There is nothing closer to citizens that the recognition of these rights. This is why a citizenship based on a catalogue of rights that are respected and safeguarded by the European institutions is the best way of securing and maintaining the support of citizens. It is useful to recall that the birth of the European Community was not an isolated event but should be placed in a context in which a union of nation- states was advocated with a view to rebuilding Europe and safeguarding economic stability and peace in the wake of the disasters caused by the two world wars. As part of this process, the immediate objective of the European Community was economic integration, but it also subsequently made great strides towards political union and defending a common area of freedom and justice. Although the recognition of rights and freedoms was not originally a core concern of the Community, which only initially recognised the freedoms necessary for the achievement of economic objectives, the EU ultimately undertook to establish a comprehensive Europe-wide community in which citizens could be key players in the process and not merely economic agents. With successive reforms to the Treaties and, lastly, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU has achieved this aim. Today, respect for human rights is an indispensable prerequisite for countries seeking to join the Union and a precondition for those wishing to enter into trade-related and other agreements with the Union, which actively promotes and safeguards fundamental rights both within its borders and in its relations with third countries. This is undoubtedly the way forward, but is a path that will require unstinting efforts to ensure that no European citizens wish to renounce their citizenship.
Yolanda Gómez Sánchez
Professor of Constitutional Law
Holder of Jean Monnet ad personam Chair
National Distance Education University (UNED)