What does it mean to be a citizen of the European Union?



“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” That is the question the British will answer in their referendum on 23 June. It is a rather abstract wording for the personal belonging of each and every citizen to the European Union. A more personal question would have been: “Do you want to continue to be a citizen of the European Union or not?” That is the real and personal essence of the vote on 23 June for each and every citizen in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But what does that really mean? What does being a citizen of the European Union mean in the 21st century?

 Answering to this question is by no means trivial. A common identity plays a fundamental role for the inner cohesion and solidarity within the European Union. Thus, it does not only concern the British but all European citizens. In view of the nationalism flaring up and the centrifugal forces in the European Union, it is high time to discuss this question elaborately and publicly.

Three years ago, in his speech on the prospects for the European idea, Germany’s Federal President Gauck quoted the Italian writer and politician Massimo D’Azeglio who said a time when Italian unity was achieved in 1861: “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.” Without doubt, that is a marvellous bon mot. So do we have to ‘make‘ citizens of the European Union today, after having made the European Union over the last 66 years? I don’t think so. I think they already exist. But we certainly need to make ourselves aware of the identity and need to assure ourselves that we are essentially of the same opinion in the Union.

Generally speaking, the question of identity can be rather complex and multi-layered. The British will vote on their membership on 23 June. However, since the Scottish Independence Referendum in September 2014, we have known that about 1.6 million Scottish (44 % of all votes cast) would prefer to be just Scottish, no longer British. There is, for example, a similar tendency among some Catalans and Basques who would rather not be Spaniards.

The question of identity – to describe it more metaphorically – can be somehow like a Russian matryoshka doll. When you take it apart, another doll – another identity – appears. But the outer doll incorporates the inner dolls, they are not neglected, they are just embraced. It is quite similar with identity. Each citizen has his/her own regional identity: Tuscan, Breton or Bavarian for example. That’s the inner doll, so to speak. Then, a national identity is added – Italian, French or German. And then there is yet another identity – that of being a citizen of the European Union. And in the widest sense, we all are global citizens, human beings and, therefore, a member of a global community of what are now more than seven billion people.

So what defines the identity of a citizen of the European Union?

It is clearly closely intertwined with the development of the European Union as such. Freedom, peace and economic development for all Europeans, that was at the core of the European Idea after 1945. The first step towards implementing this idea was Robert Schuman’s declaration on 9 May 1950. He stated that Europe would not be made all at once, or according to a single plan; that it would be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. Then, in 1957, the Treaties of Rome established the European Economic Community. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom became members in 1973. In Greece, Spain and Portugal, the prospect of accession significantly strengthened democracy in the late 70s, after an era of dictatorship. That is a merit of the Union’s predecessors which has almost been forgotten by now. In the mid-80s, the Schengen zone was initiated; then the single market was eventually ‘completed’ and the European Union was founded in 1993. Afterwards the last steps of the European Monetary Union were concluded and the Euro was established. And with ten countries joining, the Union was enlarged to Eastern Europe in 2004. The division of Europe was overcome, finally.

66 years later, the first step by Robert Schuman has developed into a Union of 28 nations with more than 500 million people. Its size is one of the best guarantees for all citizens of having their interests asserted in the 21st century. A new nationalism in Europe would not be able to deliver that. Together with NATO, the Union continues to be the best guarantee for peace, freedom and security in Europe. In the history of mankind, nothing like this has existed before. The European Union is truly unique. However, not only the Union’s historic dimension is unparalleled. Today, the Union is also unique in a very tangible way, in terms of its internal every-day life. It is very important to emphasise this because it is hardly anchored in European public awareness. Nowhere in the world does such a public space of this dimension exist, such a large area which assembles peace, freedom and the rule of law, personal and social security, innovation and economic performance in such a unique way. Nowhere. Not even in the United States – not by a long chalk. This makes the Union so valuable and is the reason why it continues to be so attractive to so many people outside its borders. This may sound surprising for many these days. But these statements are not meant to whitewash the numerous challenges the European Union is currently facing. Quite on the contrary. Only if the citizens of the Union are aware of what has already been achieved and how unique and valuable the Union really is, can the power can unfold that might be required to simultaneously master today’s challenges. Being a citizen of the European Union is not a burden nor a punishment. It is a gift, a right and a privilege.

Being a citizen of the European Union also means that one can rely on deep historical roots. Greek philosophy, Roman law and the message of Jesus Christ continue to influence deeply the daily life in the European Union until today. The Renaissance is part of the important heritage of all Europeans as well. That time saw outstanding accomplishments in arts and trailblazing scientific and technological breakthroughs. The latter put European nations in a leading position throughout the world for 400 years. But it also brought with it colonialism, a dark era of European history about which we must not be silent. And then, the philosophers of enlightenment provided the ideas which led to the American Independence and the French Revolution, the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen and the separation of church and state.

But in the 19th century, nationalism in Europe rose more and more. Especially nowadays, the devastating effects it had on Europe should not be forgotten. In 1914, it led to the beginning of a self-destructive war of unparalleled dimension originating from European soil. In the aftermath, Europe was struck by two world wars, the barbarity of the Nazi regime and the genocide committed by them, it experienced fascism and communism, dictatorship, occupation and division. Only 25 years have passed since Europe really overcame that time thanks to the peaceful revolution in the East culminating in the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Nothing reflects these experiences and this history more than today’s values of the European Union. They are laid down right at the beginning of the Treaty, in Article 2. The Charta of the Fundamental Rights deepens and elaborates them further. Respecting human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, pluralism, tolerance, justice and solidarity, gender equality and the protection of minorities are now the irrevocable and non-negotiable values of more than 500 million citizens. These values are the very foundation for the prosperity, development and future viability of the Union. They are not just empty words. Their political impact is fundamental as will be shown hereafter. Each citizen of the Union is called upon to be mindful about them and to respect them. But that’s not all. The values also need to be protected and defended. Not only from external but, if necessary, also from internal threats by its opponents and foes.

As the saying goes, the European Union is not perfect. And that is quite true. The European democracy is still young. It can and it will improve further. Genuinely European parties with genuinely European manifestos are desirable to strengthen democratic accountability vis-à-vis the citizens. But that is just one example. Of course, there are currently numerous challenges. However, the European Union has already seen many set-backs and crises in its brief history. It has overcome them all. And each one has made the Union stronger. To quote an American: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” That is what John F. Kennedy said in his so called ‘peace speech’ in 1963. The same is true of the European Union these days.

So today, being a citizen of the European Union means to know how unique and valuable the Union is. It means to be aware of the fact that the Union is the best guarantee for freedom, peace, security and for the protection and assertion of the interests of all its citizens in the 21st century. It means to appreciate its deep historical roots. It means to grow together in the power of outstanding achievements of countless Europeans in art, science and humanities in the past. It means to appreciate as well that the Union has overcome fascism, communism and colonialism. It means to care for today’s values of the Union and to protect and defend them against all enemies. And it means to trust that creativity, innovation and the potential of its citizens to reform will prevail over the current challenges. They are best to overcome together. Being a citizen of the European Union means to be united in diversity.

These are not only embellishing words. The political consequences from them are very profound. They will be discussed in the next article.

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