Putting European citizenship on the agenda

As a European citizen ‘on the move’, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the two day  5th Annual Conference on European Citizenship organised by the ECIT Foundation in Brussels from 1-2 December.

I wanted to find out more about where the EU stands with respect to the implementation of the rights we currently enjoy as EU citizens’ and to have a better understanding of the ‘Voters without borders’ campaign which calls for full political rights for mobile EU citizens.

As a mobile EU citizen, not being able to vote has always given me, on election day, the feeling of ‘looking from outside a window on Christmas day, at a happy family eating the turkey together’ ever since I first left Italy, about 20 years ago.

The impact the Conference made on me went far beyond my expectations. The panellists, the enthusiasm of the Erasmus students who organised the event, the contributions of participants and the easy access to the Conference, which this year took place entirely via Zoom, were all exceptional factors.

I learnt that EU citizenship should be promoted more actively by the EU and that significant words like rights, participation and inclusion should be more widely used to reinforce our concept of EU citizenship.  

As Laura Sullivan, from We Move Europe, said ‘We don’t want to just market EU citizenship to people, we need more good reasons to actually love the EU, in practice’. In fact, and very importantly, feelings are at the root of this, and those feelings need to be reflected on and developed further.   

The concept of European citizenship, democratic values and participation should be supported by a strong sense of belonging. This in turn needs to be nurtured from within. Growing self-awareness of EU rights can be thought of as similar to the process which instils a feeling of national identity.

As well as allowing individuals to develop a sense of what it means to be a citizen of Europe, such an awareness can also generate demands for new citizenship rights – social and health rights, for example.

Recognition of new rights is a way to connect the EU institutions to the issues that really matter to citizens at a critical moment in the EU’s history. There is today a very strong demand for environmental rights driven by transnational movements led by young people. 

Citizenship education

Education is a powerful tool on the journey towards understanding what it means to be a European citizen in the twenty-first century.

As Bernhard Köhle from Europify  put it: “Anyone can learn European fundamental values and rights like we do maths and languages. – Yet, one has to start early. The earlier the better!’.

The EU should take action to  make citizenship education a core part of the “Next Generation Europe” budget and recovery plan. 

Christoph Müller-Hofstede, coordinator of NECE, presented the NECE Declaration for more and better citizenship education:  ‘2020 is a watershed moment ..more than ever, citizenship education and capacities for democratic commitment and civic life are essential for the resilience of our societies’. 

There are many ways to put European citizenship on the agenda, from increasing the participation of EU citizens, through education and campaigning for new civil rights.  But are all EU citizens ready to be the protagonists, to take ownership of the process of becoming an EU citizen and defining what that means?  

For a new agenda to be become really effective, citizens need to internalise the concept of EU citizenship. For this, we need an inclusive, participatory approach that develops a sense of belonging. 

There remain many obstacles to empowering EU citizens including language and other cultural barriers. We must be careful not to allow education for EU citizenship be seen as propaganda by its opponents. 

The greater risk is to leave EU citizenship as the preserve of a few groups, the well-educated, those with a broader vision of Europe. The key question to ask is the one that Bono, the U2 frontman once posed: how can we make the abstract concept of Europe become a feeling?

I believe it can be done by embracing tangible ways to convey the idea of EU citizenship. The huge network of civil society organisations, projects and campaigns, for example, can be the spark that kindles the idea of EU citizenship in the everyday life of ordinary citizens. 

Civil society organisations bridge the gap between individuals and the institutions. They aggregate diverse groups of people based on interests, age, personal histories, social background or culture, for example. Through local partnerships they foster solidarity based on shared values of mutual respect and tolerance – the values that can animate a new sense of European identity.

‘We must reinvent the way we meet. Both virtually and face-to-face. It is crucial if you want to inspire, engage and motivate citizens to take an interest in democracy’.

Povl Henningsen

Projects are also a practical mechanism for engaging EU citizens in civic life: they are time- and resource-bound and need a different range of skills to be delivered effectively. But they too can be powerful drivers of a growing awareness of EU citizenship and identity.

For example, the project ‘Include’ in Paris informed mobile EU citizens in Paris about their rights and encouraged them to invest more in civic life. It led to the creation in 2018 of the EU Citizens’ Council in Paris. 

New projects involving transnational subjects can also be a very powerful thread to link different generations and professions. I would love to see an Erasmus apprenticeship project – this could unite young people, small businesses, and specialists around Europe and facilitate the exchange of cultural and professional experiences.

The Tuesday Conversation

A third way to stimulate a bottom up process for a democratic EU is through communication.  During the pandemic a good part of the population has found out how to discuss and share relevant topics online. We have found out how easy it is to connect with people from different parts of Europe and the world.

New Europeans launched the The Tuesday Conversation project stimulating a democratic debate on shared European values. That brought the abstract concept of European shared values inside the home and saw the number of participants growing every week. 

Of course this kind of project is not enough by itself. Currently, only those who speak English and had access to a computer could take part. Communication needs to work in different settings to stimulate participation and through this, an awareness of European citizenship.

As Povl Henningsen, the host of The Tuesday Conversation told the Networking European Citizenship Conference in November: 

‘We must reinvent the way we meet. Both virtually and face-to-face. It is crucial if you want to inspire, engage and motivate citizens to take an interest in democracy’. 

Communication needs to reach the heart not just the head of each individual. By working with projects such as these, and in a more and more inclusive way, I believe we can generate a sense of belonging, a feeling that we are Europeans at heart. 

As a participant, I felt privileged and inspired by being able to attend the 5th Annual Citizenship Conference, to be given the opportunity to think further about these issues and take part in the discussions. 

My take-away was the knowledge that we, the citizens, really are putting ourselves at the forefront of the conversation about what needs to happen next in Europe.

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