Being a citizens of Europe

This article was published by ECIT Foundation ahead of the event "United European Citizens for Ukraine" organised in collaboration with EUMANS, European Alternatives, Stand Up For Europe and Citizens Take Over Europe.

ECIT Foundation is among the supporters of EUkraine Now! the appeal for immediate accession of Ukraine to the European Union and Citizenship for Ukrainians. 



The illegal, ill-judged and atrocious invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Army has forced Europe as a whole to face its past, understand its present and act towards a common shared peaceful future. The struggle of the Ukrainian citizens defending their sovereignty, their democracy and ultimately, their right to wish to be European citizens are awakening us all to our shared responsibilities and the role of our rights, our own agency in defending European citizenship for what it is: a citizenship of peace, a citizenship of respect for fundamental rights, a citizenship of non-discrimination, aiming to provide wellbeing and bind Europeans, across countries and generations, into a joint project. Our existing rights as EU citizens have long been fought for and their development can only continue. European history has been and continues to be one of European citizenship, forever in the making.
The numerous instances of solidarity shown from all corners of the European Union all point to a rapid awakening to an existing sense of common citizenship and shared values across the continent in the population more generally. The stories around the war also reveal the simple fact of our integrated pasts and family connections across the continent. Not only is there an unprecedented degree of unity among public opinion within the EU, but it also stretches to neighbouring countries pushing governments, so that there is general alignment on EU measures in the UK, Norway and Switzerland, for example. European citizens are protesting against the war on the streets, making donations, welcoming refugees to their homes and even volunteering to fight in Ukraine which may be described as the ultimate act of common citizenship, even though it may not be recognised as such. 

This is not the first time that such movements of European public opinion have sprung into life: there were the protests against the war in Iraq for example, Fridays for Future and the solidarity shown during the period of the pandemic. Can European citizenship be centred on the EU, but stretching beyond, be the way to give more permanence to these movements? After all, the European Council meeting in Versailles on 10-11 March affirmed that Ukraine is fighting for our shared values and “belongs to our European family”. 

Should European citizenship be a status limited to nationals of Member States of the EU as some would argue was promulgated by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, or  should Union citizenship as stipulated in the treaty be seen as an evolutionary status? This question has been asked from the outset by human rights, migration organisations and supported by broader civil society alliances. This first transnational citizenship of the modern era stretches beyond the borders of the EU and should be one based not just on nationality but also residence. Being a citizen of Europe certainly has an inclusive continental-wide sense culturally and historically. For increasingly many young people, Europe is the freedom to move not only within the EU but without distinction of institutional boundaries from Kyiv to Paris, Lisbon to Oslo.

We are witnessing a rapid paradigm shift in the architecture of the European continent and European citizenship should adapt too. If the European Union chooses to stand for its values, it, therefore, chooses to stand for European citizenship as the quintessential experience and link between citizens and the so-called European way of life. And what does it mean to stand for European citizenship? How can we defend it, maintain and grow its relevance and how can we make sure it is well suited to address the most burning questions of the 21st century, all of which are brought to the forefront and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine?

The ECIT Foundation has argued that for all its limitations, EU citizenship has more legal substance, deeper cultural roots and is more used and adhered to than generally thought, especially by young people. Let’s wake up a sleeping giant and empower it to play its role in safeguarding the rights of European citizens, beyond the borders of the European Union. Is it possible to imagine an EU citizenship that becomes more inclusive not just for 13.5 million mobile EU citizens, but also for 21 million third country nationals and extends to all corners of the continent? 

As the first transnational citizenship of the modern era, it should not be seen exclusively through the prism of the norms of national citizenship. Is it really so difficult to imagine common citizenship to which membership of the EU adds rights and accountable institutions, especially in electing a European Parliament,  but which also exists across the continent? 

There are at least three reasons why it is necessary  to consider such a re-formulation of European citizenship:

  • To incorporate a changed area of freedom of movement and security

On 3 March, the EU Council agreed to activate for the first time Directive 2001/55/EU on” minimum standards for giving temporary  protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on temporary measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons”. 

This sets a good premise and means that Ukrainians fleeing the war are moving towards becoming equal residents to EU citizens, and their children may be even more, as they will grow up to be European citizens.  The EU has allowed free access for displaced persons from the war zone for up to three years with rights of residence to work and to access educational,  health and other services. It remains to be seen how this groundbreaking agreement is enforced by Member States but in theory, the rights are similar to those of EU citizens and to those in the European Economic Area. 

This unprecedented welcome to millions of people who have left the country so far undermines any attempt by Russia or Belarus to weaponise migration and divide Member States in the way that they have been divided in response to refugees from the war in Syria. Most Ukrainians will want to return home after the war, but some may wish to stay. What will be their status once temporary protection ceases?  The war will therefore have an impact on patterns of freedom of movement and migration in different parts of Europe. 

These tragic events open the door to other questions, for example, whether in more normal times the Schengen zone and freedom of movement and residence could be extended from the EU to its wider European neighbourhood. 

The European Council in Versailles emphasised building European sovereignty through a) bolstering our defence capabilities b) reducing our energy dependencies and c) building a more robust economic base. Could it be that a fourth point is missing, reflecting the European movement of support for Ukraine and the need to keep the spirit of solidarity going as long as the war lasts and long afterwards? 

This is not because EU citizenship is in any way threatened by thinking about European citizenship on a broader geographical scale, on the contrary. There is a real risk, however, that after the period of restrictions on health grounds that freedom of movement will not be restored to its level from before the pandemic and that public authorities will have increasing resort to applying the exceptions which are allowed and proposed for in the new Schengen regime. New initiatives may therefore be needed, such as the proposal ECIT has promoted over the years for a free movement solidarity fund, which would create more solidarity between countries of origin and countries of destination as part of EU cohesion policy. There is no doubt that freedom of movement can no longer be taken for granted and that the 13.5 million mobile EU citizens, as well as third-country nationals, including the increasing numbers of Ukrainian refugees, need far more political representation at all levels. 

  • To prepare the ground for further enlargement of the EU through a European citizenship Pact for countries in the Neighbourhood

Ukraine, along with Moldova and Georgia should be given the status of candidate country, but the bureaucratic obstacles should not be underestimated. There are also legitimate concerns about the readiness of these countries, the EU’s own absorption capacities and the geopolitical situation. How to reconcile the short-term response with these long-term considerations and keep the European family together before a further enlargement is achieved? There are lessons to be learned from the current enlargement process where long waiting periods produce frustration, encouraging a backlash and anti-EU nationalistic rhetoric. Rather than bringing people into Europe, the process can have the reverse effect. Speeding up  EU membership for the remaining Western Balkans countries would be a powerful signal, extending European citizenship ahead of further enlargement would be another.

  • To highlight that this conflict is about preserving European values and democracy

Whilst European values are constantly invoked in political rhetoric in opposition to the war, they are not yet reflected in proposals for any specific measures to strengthen the European response. There should be a commitment for example to build  European citizenship and civil society when peace is restored. 

How should such an exploration of a common European citizenship be approached?

This proposal for Europe - wide citizenship raises complex constitutional questions about the nature of citizenship and the relationship between European and national citizenship, and many will be tempted to reject it out of hand.  We have seen such rejection before through the response to appeals with petitions or through the courts for UK citizens who wished to maintain Union citizenship after their country left the EU. The limits of citizenship confined to nationals of EU Member States has truly been highlighted in the aftermath of Brexit, as there is no other European status to fall back on if your country leaves the EU. The prospect of being able to solve this problem of overcoming the limits to EU citizenship by re-joining the EU appears remote, at least for the foreseeable future. And what of those citizens living in the EU who have never been nationals of a Member State? For these reasons, the ECIT Foundation has argued consistently for an expanding rather than shrinking European citizenship, a proposal that should be examined in a new light and in greater detail following the war on Ukraine. This will be the main theme of the annual conference we are organising from the 31st of October to  the 1st of November. 

In approaching common European citizenship, it is also essential that a proposal for a statute on European citizenship would be created, as it would a) help set the premise of equality and non-discrimination towards the Ukrainian citizens now in the EU b) help EU citizens easily understand their rights even when staying at home in their Member States and not engaging in mobility schemes inside the EU and c) would set the right starting point for a future Convention for the revision of the European Treaties. There is growing support for a statute to bring together the elements of common citizenship which exist across EU Treaties and legislation and which would also reflect the many proposals for reforms being put forward in the Conference on the Future of Europe. ECIT has a draft for a statute on European citizenship which can be found here on the CoFoE online platform. It is currently being revised to consider the context of the current crisis.

This process requires further deliberation among civil society activists, academics and policymakers in order to develop a consensus on a text which should exist alongside the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Pillar of Social Rights. This is no easy text to develop, since European citizenship is a scattered concept and seen through the lens of different interests and disciplines and can end up as an abstraction. Such a process of deliberation should however make it possible alongside universal human rights provisions to imagine broader European citizenship of rights, participation and belonging, the three components of citizenship at any level, and which stand or fall together. We need to start working on European citizenship now, to create more unity and solidarity in Europe