In 1992, forty years after the European Union was established, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the notion of a “European citizen”.
It did not go well. Not only did this new term awaken mistrust between the peoples of the EU’s different Member States, it even caused such considerable internal controversy states such as Denmark that the European Council had to release a statement in order to confirm that “citizenship of the Union is a political and legal concept which is entirely different from national citizenship (…)”. In the same year, the European Commission sought ways to create common EU symbols but faced strong resistance from the Member States. A good example of this was the Commission’s proposals to have athletes from all Member States appear as one delegation during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a proposal which was fully roundly by governments.
Now, 1992 seems a long time ago, and surely, one would think, that after more than twenty years, with a generation already born as European citizens coming into adulthood, this term would have to be something warm and familiar, something, we cherish as much as our nationality.
But, for most, it is not.
In the European Union’s web portal, it is still stated that “EU citizenship is additional to and does not replace national citizenship.” Eurosceptics keep arguing that to overcome nationality is impossible, and those who think otherwise are to be regarded as utopian fantasts. With Brexit, it feels like the utopian idea of a one strong, united Europe is slowly drifting away. More and more people from the Member States reject the idea of an ever-closer Europe, often out of fear that their state might lose its sovereignty under the pressure of common policies. On this note, one might even argue that it is the lack of trust and general indifference among the Europeans that is the main reason why the European Union is facing such problems now.
A survey conducted by TNS political & social at the request of the European Commission in 2015 shows that there still are people in the Member States – fortunately, not too many, and the share of them is declining – that do not even fully understand the term “European citizen” and the mystery hidden within the term . In 2015, 13 % of the respondents stated that they have never even heard the term “citizens of the European Union”, while 35 % of respondents said that they have heard about it, but do not know what it means exactly.
Maybe this is the reason why, when looking at the statistical data from 2015, over 30 % of the Europeans admit not feeling like a European citizen. In addition, 38 % of all Europeans admitted that they not only do not feel like a European citizen, they actually see themselves as exclusively a member of their nation. This, again, might be the reason why European citizens distance themselves from European affairs – this can be seen in all its “glory” when looking at the 2014 European Parliamentary election where only 42.6% of all people holding European citizenship voted. 42.6%! Not only it is that the lowest turnout since the first European elections in 1979, it also makes one think – what happened?
It is not like the idea is not being promoted. There are different levels of Erasmus programme available to encourage exploring other Member States, there are European days, information centres in every country, videos, information campaigns and the homepage run by the European Commission – europa.eu – can be accessed in every single official EU language. But somehow, the notion does not reach its target. It seems that on the way from Brussels to our homes, the information gets lost and never really reaches us, the citizens of the European Union.
So what does it mean to be a European citizen?
Let’s put it in an everyday perspective.
To be a European citizen means that you can finish your dinner with your Spanish family, and carry on your night with drinking a nice, cold bottle of German beer, maybe snacking on some French macaroons while watching Downton Abbey and texting with your best friend from Bulgaria. It means that you can say “Hello” in at least five languages, and your “bad” words collection is enormous thanks to your friends from Italy, Estonia and Greece.
Being a European citizen means you can spontaneously buy some low cost airplane tickets and have a nice weekend whether up in the snowy mountains, deep into mysterious forests or sunbathing in the sunny beaches, regardless whether you are from Latvia, Portugal or Slovenia.
On a more serious note, it means that you can make your voice heard by a petition, or a letter, or even by becoming a candidate for Parliamentary elections and you have the fundamental right not to be discriminated whether by race, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation. It means that, as long as you stay within the borders of the Union, you are never “illegal” and you can work and live abroad, and are always protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities in another twenty-seven countries, excluding your homeland. Being a European Citizen means that under certain conditions, if you feel that the national court of your homeland has ruled unfairly, you can bring the country to Court of Justice and fight for your truth.
To have the fortune to be a European citizen means that you have the rare opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world in new ways again and again, and yet – stay true to your own nationality.
That is what being a European citizen means. Simple as that.
Elizabete Marija Skrastina is new to The Euroculturer. Keep up with her latest stories by following The Euroculturer on Facebook or by subscribing to our newsletter.
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