Meaningful citizenship starts with political rights

Niccolo Milanese continues the debate we are hosting on the idea of an individual associate membership of the EU

9th March 2017

One Day Without Us have organised EU migrants to fight for their rights. But British citizens are set to lose rights in the EU too.

In her recent piece, Mary Kaldor has joined others like Ulrike Guerot in trying to find in Brexit both a possibility for UK citizens to guard their European rights, and for the European Union in general to evolve in a positive direction. It is a tough task, but this attitude of resolute optimism is the antidote to despair. She also insists correctly that rights are not the kind of things that can just be taken away by governments, and that they are certainly not the kind of things that should be given up easily.

Whether ‘associate citizenship of the European Union’ is an idea that can help achieve all this depends crucially on the answers to two questions: what exactly is meant by ‘associate citizenship’? And what political strategy can be employed to promote it? The first question is important to avoid being blinded by the words: ‘associate citizenship’. It may sound more or less impressive, but until what it includes is specified we should be careful. The second question is particularly important for UK citizens wanting to act to protect their European rights, given that the UK government does not seem to take this as a priority.

Let’s start by clarifying what rights we are talking about. European citizens benefit from several rights, which are defined in the treaties and in various European directives.

These are usually badly and incompletely described, so I will provide a quick list. European citizens have the following rights with regards to other EU countries:

  • The right of entry
  • The right of residence
  • The right to work
  • Social security rights
  • The right to business and to provide services
  • Consumer protection and passenger rights
  • Right to non-discrimination
  • Voting and political rights at local and European levels (to be a candidate, to vote)
  • Protection by the consular services of other EU countries
  • Access to the European Institutions (right to request documents, to complain etc)

European Citizens benefit from the complete bundle of these mobility, social and political rights, in addition to their national citizenship. Some of them are extended to non-European citizens as well. Norwegians, for example – since Norway is part of the European Economic Area (and therefore accepts free movement) – benefit from many of the rights, but the right of residence, non-discrimination and access to EU institutions are partially limited and they do not have voting or political rights. Switzerland has an arrangement with the EU on the basis of bilateral agreements, which ensures right of entry, right to work and rights to social security, and some limited right of residence, for Swiss citizens in the EU and EU citizens in Switzerland. Canada (based on the free trade agreement) and Turkey (based on the association agreement) have specific agreements with the EU which gives Canadian citizens and Turkish citizens certain rights in the EU, and EU citizens certain rights in these countries. A very useful post-Brexit comparison of these different ‘models’ relating to citizen rights has been made by ECAS.

The problem of reciprocality 

The UK government has been clear that it does not want an off-the-shelf model for its relationship with the European Union, but a bespoke agreement. Be that as it may, the question for citizens is: which rights we will be able to keep?

The debate in the UK parliaments until now has largely been focused on the rights of entry, residence, work and access to social security for European citizens already in the UK, and for UK citizens already in other EU countries. It is worth noticing that no political rights are in discussion here, and so it is questionable to what extent talking about ‘citizenship’ – which suggests some political agency and representation – is appropriate. We can also note that this curious discussion is focused around preserving these limited rights, rather than guaranteeing a full set of rights for EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in other EU countries through naturalization – that is, offering national citizenship to these residents. One might think that as the UK leaves the EU, naturalization of those citizens who had taken advantage of their free movement rights before Brexit on the assumption those rights would continue would be a fair way of ensuring these people continue to have a citizenship in many ways equal to that of people born citizens of the country.

Making some arrangements for UK citizens already in other EU countries, and EU citizens already in the UK should not be too difficult on the basis of a reciprocal agreement. The agreement needs, ultimately, to be reciprocal, because there is no reason why EU countries are going to allow UK citizens rights in their countries which EU citizens do not have in the UK. This is not to say that the UK wouldn’t make coming to an agreement easier by giving a generous guarantee to EU citizens in the UK now, taking the initiative as befits the one who is leaving the EU, instead of insisting that everything is up for negotiation.

Much more complicated is going to be agreeing on the ongoing relationship between the UK and EU. Will UK citizens who are not already living in other EU countries retain rights to move, to reside, to work, to have access to social security, etc. after Brexit? And will EU citizens have these rights in the UK? ‘Associate citizenship’ of the EU will be worth having if it guarantees as many as possible of these rights on an ongoing basis for UK citizens, but it is important to notice that given reciprocity is the basis these rights are likely to be granted on, any restriction in free movement for EU citizens coming into the UK is going to translate into restrictions for UK citizens going out to the EU.

The political climate in Brussels 

Here, the political mood is currently running against the interests of the UK citizens who want to retain some European rights. Firstly, because the climate in the UK has become so trenchantly opposed to free movement. Secondly, because the attitude of many in Brussels is that the UK has been asking for special privileges for years, and that a very special deal was made in February 2016, which would have allowed the UK to limit free movement of EU citizens into the UK (whilst the EU would not impose any constraints on the movement of UK citizens). This special deal – which many throughout Europe thought was unfair and unjustified, but swallowed because they valued UK membership of the EU – was turned down at the referendum.

Efforts to maintain European rights for UK citizens now need to be very careful not to appear as yet more special pleading, and need to be thought about and framed as advances for everyone’s rights throughout Europe. Thirdly, establishing a meaningful ‘associate citizenship’ will require reopening treaty provisions on citizenship, and many fear opening that ‘pandora’s box’ right at the moment will lead to member states tearing European citizenship apart and limiting it as much as possible for everyone. So many insiders conclude with regret that the best thing for a meaningful European citizenship at the moment may be for the British to lose it.

Building progressive coalitions 

Building coalitions in this political climate is going to be tricky, but here are two elements of a strategy:

Firstly, Brexit is going to create several very problematic political situations, notably in Ireland and in Gibraltar, where limiting European citizenship rights, including those relating to freedom of movement, risks reopening historical conflicts. If the European Union prides itself on one thing (with some undeniable justification) it is reconciling historic conflicts. If associate citizenship or some similar idea can be shown to help to avoid resurrecting borders between people in these places, then it is likely to get some support from decision-makers in national capitals and Brussels.

Secondly, and more speculatively, the strategy should take account that there is increasing consensus about a move towards creating a multi-speed, multi-level Europe, perhaps with a euro-zone core which is highly integrated, then with concentric circles of integration going out from this centre. Such a scenario poses risks for a unified European citizenship: how to avoid a two or multi-class citizenship if countries are integrated to very different degrees? One solution to this would be to acknowledge that European citizenship, although unified for full EU citizens, consists of a bundle of rights which are already differentially granted outside the European Union. As we already saw, Norwegians, Swiss, Canadians and Turkish already benefit for some of these rights based on the specific arrangements between their countries and the EU. One proposal to ensure meaningful European citizenship if we are going to see more of this differentiated integration also inside the European Union would be to insist that any degree of European citizenship must involve political representation rights. This would mean that also Norwegians, Swiss, Turkish, potentially British, would have elected representatives at a European level, as would citizens of EU countries. On any one issue, only those countries concerned would see their representatives vote: only citizens of Eurozone countries would have their elected representatives vote on issues relating to the euro, for example. But on issues relating to everyone, everyone would vote.

This strategy suggests that advancing progressive citizenship for Europeans today may begin in the way it has begun throughout European history: by demanding political rights. We know from historical experience that social and other rights are vulnerable for as long as they are not coupled with political rights. They are always at risk of being negotiated away or compromised. British pro-Europeans may find political agency today in seeing their common vulnerability with all of those often called ‘third country nationals’ in the EU, and by campaigning for a more meaningful citizenship for everyone.

Niccolo Milanese is the chair of European Alternatives