Tony Venables / Jan 2019
I believe that if Brexit goes ahead, its impact on our personal identity as Europeans will be the most difficult adjustment to make. If nothing is done and Brexit goes ahead on 29 March 2019, 66 million British citizens will be stripped overnight of their European Citizenship, whilst an EU citizenry of 512 million will shrink to 446 million. Does it make sense to have a harder Brexit for people than for goods and services? To counteract these dangers, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on Permanent European Union Citizenship must reach one million signatures by 23 July 2019.
EU authorities and national governments should receive a clear message that deprivation of a citizenship status on such a massive scale is not only questionable, it is also unacceptable. This message is all the more necessary because the EU has claimed that citizenship is outside their mandate of the negotiations for the withdrawal of the UK under Article 50. It has thus been left to us citizens to correct this deliberate oversight. If this ECI reaches the threshold of one million signatures, the EU Commission will have to consider whether sweeping citizenship under the carpet was the right policy choice. There are signs that the European Parliament would support putting citizenship on the agenda.
So far, over 101,000 people have shown their support for this ECI with signatures from all EU-28 Member States. 80% of the signatures come from the UK, maybe because it is those who are about to lose their status, who value it the most. This should however be a warning to European citizens in other EU countries not to take for granted a transnational citizenship which seemingly can be taken away without their consent.
For many it goes without saying that if you leave the club, you hand in your membership card, but EU citizenship has come to be more than just a symbol. There are good reasons to question the status quo:
- Did UK citizens really vote to give up their EU citizenship in the 2016 Referendum on Membership of the EU? By implication they may have done, but not explicitly. EU citizenship was not raised in the document sent by the Government to every household, or by the Remain and Leave campaigns. EU citizens in the UK and British citizens who have lived outside of the country for more than 15 years were disenfranchised. Even if one believes a majority voted to renounce EU citizenship, standards of international and human rights law suggest that solutions should be found to safeguard the identity and rights of the minority. EU Treaties say how EU citizenship is acquired, but nothing about how it can be lost.
- Should holding the citizenship of an EU Member State be the only route to EU citizenship? The only way for UK citizens to currently keep their European citizenship is to acquire the nationality of another EU Member State. The German Government, for example, has passed legislation to make this easier. Those married to an EU citizen or with other family connections may also be eligible for naturalisation, but with varying chances of success. For example, there are those in the UK who have Anglo-Irish citizenship. Where does this leave those who see themselves as European citizens in the UK but who do not have recourse to one of these solutions and will therefore be stripped of their European citizenship?
- If European citizenship is no longer recognised, will it be possible to preserve European rights? The Withdrawal Agreement codifies EU Law on freedom of movement, based on the legislation on residence rights, access to social security and recognition of professional qualifications. However, an agreement on paper is one thing, enforcing it is another. The UK Government is determined to abolish European freedom of movement as well as any distinction between EU citizens and immigrants from the rest of the world; whilst the EU will turn UK citizens into third country nationals and will challenge their right to move freely around the EU. There is therefore a flagrant contradiction between status and rights which over time will make the Withdrawal Agreement redundant.
- Lastly, is this really the Europe we want? Would it not be better to conceive an expanding rather than a shrinking European citizenship? One that is possibly based on residence within the EU; and even one which is extended to Europeans in neighbouring countries? That may not yet be on the agenda of national governments — too pre-occupied, guarding their national sovereignty over protecting interests which we all share and which call for an international citizenship — but it is part of civil society’s aim for a more inclusive Europe.
Tony Venables is the Founder of ECIT — a foundation working on European Citizenship. He started his career as a European civil servant, before heading up the consumer group BEUC (European Bureau of Consumer Unions) and setting up ECAS (European Citizen Action Service). He is the author of the book Piecing Together Europe’s Citizenship.