European Union (EU) Citizenship – a nexus of rights, a mirror of diversity

In the olden days, when international travel was a bit more than wishful thinking, I would always dread going down the airport corridor that would take me to the border control booth. My anxiety was caused by the knowledge that somewhere along that corridor, I would see a sign telling me to go to the ‘long queue’, often reserved for those who were crossing an external border of the European Union (EU) but were not EU citizens. For that reason, like many other people, would relate EU citizenship to the ability to travel freely. Little did I know then that EU citizenship entailed far more than free movement across borders; that it was a nexus of rights going beyond those that states afford to their citizens, and a mirror of European diversity. As such, EU citizenship is marvellously complex, utterly desirable, and possibly insufficiently appreciated or instrumentalised. How so?

Citizenship of the European Union (EU citizenship) has been established in 1992 to define the rights of citizens of the member states across the Union. Its essence has been enshrined in article 9 of the Maastricht Treaty. Interestingly, even though some form of Europe-wide rights had been contemplated among the Member States since the 1960s, the question of EU citizenship was the stumbling stone for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. In June 1992, the Danish people rejected the Treaty in a referendum, eventually leading to stipulations – in the treaties of Amsterdam in 1997 and Lisbon in 2007 – of the particular nature of EU citizenship as reflective of the legal and political architecture of the EU. Put simply, while EU citizenship is deeply engrained in this architecture, it does not and cannot exist on its own, but is linked to national citizenship of Member States, as highlighted in article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. In this sense, the EU citizenship is of a derivative nature. It represents what Rainer Bauböck (2010: 848) referred to as a ‘citizenship constellation’, or ‘a structure in which individuals are simultaneously linked to several political entities, so that their legal rights and duties are determined not only by one political authority, but by several’.

Being established through the ‘nesting’ of national citizenship of Member States into a supranational structure, EU citizenship is attached to a specific array of rights promulgated in the treaties. These rights can be broadly allocated in three categories: 1) political rights; 2) free movement rights; and 3) rights abroad. Each of these categories of rights has important implications for citizens, but also for the functioning of the EU, not only as a union of states, but also as a sui generis union of citizens.

The core political rights related to EU citizenship include (1) the right to vote and stand in elections to the European Parliament (EP), in an EU Member State other than the one where the person is from and (2) the right to vote and stand in local elections in another EU Member State, under the same conditions as the nationals of that state. The first one means that Helga from Sweden, who lives in Malta, can cast her vote or run as a member of EP in either of these countries. The second one gives Helga the right to vote for or be elected as a representative in the Valetta municipal council. Therefore, transnational electoral rights related to EU citizenship, on the one hand, constitute the European demos at the supranational level. On the other hand, they enable European citizens to participate in local communities, thus creating a sense of belonging and civic identity. Further political rights related to EU citizenship include the right to access to European Parliament, Council, and Commission documents; a right to petition the European Parliament and the right to apply to the European Ombudsman; as well as the right to write to the EU institutions in one of the official languages and to receive a reply in that same language. These political rights reflect how the EU’s institutional structure accounts for diversity created by the coming together of the 27 sovereign states.

This progressive coming together (and coming apart, with the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU) has significantly affected the area in which EU citizens could exercise their rights related to free movement, as the second category rights linked to EU citizenship. Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU stipulates a right of free movement and residence in the entire EU, and the right to work in any occupation (including national civil services, unless those involve positions that safeguard the national interests of Member States). Moreover, article 18 of the same treaty posits a right not to be discriminated against on grounds of nationality within the scope of application of the Treaty. For example, Ioana from Romania decides to move to Austria to look for better job opportunities in the IT sector. EU citizenship rights, or more specifically, article 21, gives her the right to do so, without having to go through standard immigration procedures (e.g., obtaining a job first, applying for a visa). The prohibition of discrimination, on the other hand, implies that when Ioana applies for a job in Austria, her application should be considered in the same way as that of an Austrian national. While this principle obviously does not prevent all forms of discrimination (e.g., tacit discrimination on the basis of one’s name), it does open additional opportunities to individuals to pursue their personal and professional objectives in another Member State.

The third category of rights associated with EU citizenship is the right to consular protection, by the diplomatic or consular authorities of any other Member State when in a third country, if there are no diplomatic or consular authorities from the citizen’s own state. So, imagine if Ioana from the example above had travelled to the Ivory Coast, where she lost her bag with all of her documents. If there is no Romanian embassy or consulate in this country, Ioana could seek consular assistance from the embassy of Portugal, for example. Beyond issues related to individual consular assistance, this EU citizenship right became crucial at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a joint effort between the Member States, the European Commission and the European External Action Service resulted in repatriation of 600,000 EU citizens.

The bundle of additional rights makes EU citizenship extremely desirable, especially to those – like the people of the Western Balkans – who had no experience of its benefits. The protracted political, social and economic transition that the region has experienced, coupled with the most recent authoritarian turn and democratic backsliding, has protracted the prospect of accession thus making EU citizenship for everyone in the Western Balkans a distant dream. Due to the very nature of Union citizenship and its entanglement with that of individual Member States, the more fortunate with ancestry in Bulgaria, Croatia, or Hungary may be able to strategize and benefit from these countries’ much contested external citizenship policies; the same applies to the region’s richest who could benefit from the controversial investor citizenship schemes in several EU Member States. While such problematic practices may certainly benefit a small group of Western Balkan citizens, they equally reveal how the legal structure of EU citizenship can be instrumentalised by some Member States for their political or economic objectives. Instead of jumping on the train of these odd practices, Western Balkan citizens would benefit far more from their political elites’ greater engagement with democracy and substantive (rather than formal, or declarative) efforts to eliminate the rust that has built up during the three decades of political transition. Genuinely working towards joining the EU will provide us, Western Balkan citizens, who haven’t bought the winning card in the ‘birthright lottery’, with the faith that the day we will become Union citizens, that that long-awaited day – will come.

Jelena Džankić PhD, the author is working at the European University Institute, in Florence, Italy

Napomena: Kolumnu slobodno mogu preuzimati svi mediji uz navođenje autora, kao i da se kolumna objavljuje kroz projekat „Različiti putevi – zajedničke vrijednosti“, koji sprovodi Centar za građansko obrazovanje (CGO), u saradnji sa fondacijom Heinrich Böll iz  Berlina, Inicijativom mladih za ljudska prava iz Zagreba, Udruženjem za modernu istoriju iz Sarajeva i Forumom ZfD – kancelarijom iz Beograda. Projekat je podržan od strane EU, kroz program Evropa za građane. Kolumna je originalno objavljena na platformi Evropski forum