European Union (EU) citizenship is conferred, with few exceptions, on all citizens of the 28 member states. It affords the right to free movement, settlement, employment and trade across the union, as well as protection under EU laws. However, its status in relation to national citizenship is an open legal question.
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In March 2019, when the UK is scheduled to exit the bloc, around 65 million people are probably going to have their EU citizenship removed. A European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) to the European Commission seeks to make sure no person will ever have to lose their EU citizenship, once gained, if their state leaves the union. This petition, calling for “Permanent European Union Citizenship,” was registered on July 23, 2018. In the first 8 days of it being open for online endorsement, it has been signed by over 69,000 people, with the UK, Romania and Belgium leading the pack.
Guy Verhofstadt, who is an MEP, leader of the ALDE group, advocate for a federal Europe and chief Brexit representative for the European Parliament, endorsed the petition, saying of it on Twitter: ”EU citizenship does not replace our national citizenship, it is additional to it. If you believe in Churchill’s vision of a “common citizenship” uniting Europe, please sign”. He urged people to spread awareness of it, adding: ”Let’s make this the most popular citizen’s initiative ever!”.
An ECI is a lesser-known EU mechanism that allows citizens to directly propose policies and raise issues with the European Commission. After being registered, such an initiative has to gather at least 1 million statements of support from EU citizens, including certain quotas from at least a quarter of member countries, within a year of registration. If such a petition reaches its goal, the commission will decide whether to take action or not, which it must justify.
For now, the future remains uncertain.
The European Commission said of the initiative in a press release: ”The main objective of the proposed initiative is to guarantee that European citizenship and its associated rights cannot be lost once they have been attained. […] The Commission’s decision to register the Initiative concerns only the legal admissibility of the proposal.”
In February, a judge in the Netherlands allowed a case brought by a group of Britons living in the country, arguing that EU citizenship may not be lost once attained (except through the loss of national citizenship), to proceed to the European Court of Justice, as reported by French news site The Connexion. (The state of Netherlands appealed the referral. The appeal is ongoing.)
The EC’s decision, as well as that of the Netherlands judge, highlight the fact that the matter is unsettled, and that the argument that EU citizenship belongs directly to the individual (as opposed to being a relationship taking place strictly through the state) has at least some legal merit.
The decision, whether taken through the EU’s executive and legislative branches or through the judiciary, has become a pressing matter owing to Brexit. In this context, it will have tremendous impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of Britons living in other EU countries, as well as EU citizens living in the UK.
The end result will certainly be increased clarity on what it means to be a citizen of the European Union.
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