Citizenship of the European Union is enshrined in the EU Treaty: ‘Every person holding the nationality of a member state shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship’. But what does EU citizenship mean in practice?
Travelling, living and working in Europe
If you are an EU citizen you have the right to travel, work and live anywhere in the European Union.
If you have completed a university course lasting three years or more, your qualification will be recognised in all EU countries, since EU member states have confidence in the quality of one another’s education and training systems. You can work in the health, education and other public services (except for the police, armed forces, etc.) of any country in the European Union.
Before travelling within the EU you can obtain from your national authorities a European health insurance card, to help cover your medical costs if you fall ill while in another country.
How you can exercise your rights as a European citizen
As a citizen of the European Union you are not just a worker or a consumer: you also have specific political rights:
Regardless of your nationality, you have had the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in local elections in your country of residence and in elections to the European Parliament.
You have the right to petition the Commission to put forward a legislative proposal – provided you can find a million people from a significant number of EU countries to sign your petition.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU contains six headings – Dignity, Freedoms, Equality, Solidarity, Citizens’ rights and Justice under which fall 54 articles that set out the EU’s fundamental values and the civil, political, economic and social rights of EU citizens.
The opening articles cover human dignity, the right to life, the right to the ‘integrity of the person’ and the right to freedom of expression and of conscience. The chapter on solidarity brings together, in an innovative way, social and economic rights such as:
the right to strike;
the right of workers to be informed and consulted;
the right to reconcile family life and professional life;
the right to healthcare, social security and social assistance throughout the European Union.
The Charter also promotes equality between men and women and introduces rights such as data protection, a ban on eugenic practices and the reproductive cloning of human beings, the right to environmental protection, the rights of children and elderly people and the right to good administration.
Europe means education and culture
A sense of belonging together and having a common destiny cannot be manufactured. It can only arise from a shared cultural awareness, which is why Europe needs to focus not just on economics but also on education, citizenship and culture.
The EU does not say how schools and education are to be organised or what the curriculum is: these things are decided at national or local level. But the EU does run programmes to promote educational exchanges so that young people can go abroad to train or study, learn new languages and take part in joint activities with schools or colleges in other countries. These programmes include Comenius (school education), Erasmus (higher education), Leonardo da Vinci (vocational training), Grundtvig (adult education) and Jean Monnet (university-level teaching and research in European integration).
In the field of culture, the EU’s ‘Culture’ and ‘Media’ programmes foster cooperation between TV programme and film-makers, promoters, broadcasters and cultural bodies from different countries. This encourages the production of more European TV programmes and films.
One of Europe’s essential characteristics is its diversity of languages – and preserving that diversity is an important EU objective. Indeed, multilingualism is fundamental to the way the European Union works. EU legislation has to be available in all 23 official languages, and every MEP has the right to use his or her own language in parliamentary debates.
The Ombudsman and your right to petition Parliament
To help bring the EU closer to its citizens, the Treaty on European Union created the post of Ombudsman. The European Parliament appoints the Ombudsman, who remains in office for the duration of the Parliament. The Ombudsman’s role is to investigate complaints against EU institutions and bodies. Complaints may be brought by any EU citizen and by any person or organisation living or based in an EU country. The Ombudsman tries to arrange an amicable settlement between the complainant and the institution or body concerned.
A sense of belonging
The idea of a ‘citizens’ Europe’ is very new. Some symbols of a shared European identity already exist, such as the European passport, in use since 1985. EU driving licences have been issued in all EU countries since 1996. The EU has a motto, ‘United in diversity’, and 9 May is celebrated as ‘Europe Day’.
However, people cannot feel they ‘belong to’ the European Union unless they are aware of what the EU is doing and understand why. The EU institutions and member states need to do much more to explain EU affairs in clear and simple language. People also need to see the EU making a tangible difference to their daily lives. In this respect, the use of euro notes and coins since 2002 has had a major impact.
More than two thirds of EU citizens now manage their personal budget and savings in euro. Pricing goods and services in euro means that consumers can compare prices directly from one country to another. Border checks have been abolished between most EU countries under the Schengen Agreement, and this already gives people a sense of belonging to a single, unified geographical area.
A sense of belonging comes, above all, with feeling personally involved in EU decision-making. Every adult EU citizen has the right to vote in European Parliament elections, and this is an important basis for the EU’s democratic legitimacy. That legitimacy is being increased as more powers are given to the European Parliament, national parliaments have a greater say in EU business and Europe’s citizens become more actively involved in NGOs and political movements. If you want to help shape the European agenda and influence EU policies, there are many ways to do so. There are, for example, online discussion forums dedicated to European Union affairs where you can join in the debate, and you can post your views on Commissioners’ or MEPs’ blogs. You can also contact the Commission or Parliament directly, online or via one of their offices in your country. Europe Direct offices near you can help you do this as well.
The European Union was set up to serve the peoples of Europe, and its future must be shaped by the active involvement of people from all walks of life. The EU’s founding fathers were well aware of this. ‘We are not bringing together states, we are uniting people’, said Jean Monnet back in 1952. Raising public awareness about the EU and involving citizens in its activities is still one of the greatest challenges facing the EU institutions today.