Leadership in times of crisis starts by fixing the EU’s democratic deficit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As we enter 2022, it is 30 years since Citizenship of the European Union was first introduced during the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. This led to the creation of the first transnational citizenship, affording all EU citizens with rights, freedoms and legal protections, write Suzana Carp and Justin Goshorn. [MattTempest/Flickr]

As we enter 2022, it is 30 years since Citizenship of the European Union was first introduced during the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. This led to the creation of the first transnational citizenship, affording all EU citizens with rights, freedoms and legal protections, write Suzana Carp and Justin Goshorn.

Suzana Carp is a Director of the ECIT Foundation, Justin Goshorn leads the Voters without Borders campaign.

The European Union has been at the helm of integrating a rights–based approach to its evolutionary political construction. When Union citizenship was introduced three decades ago by the Maastricht Treaty, a first step was made to link freedom of movement to democratic participation. Today, 13.5 million mobile EU citizens the have the right to vote in local and European elections in their country of residence.

Yet the right to vote in regional or national elections in the place where citizens reside and pay taxes was intentionally overlooked. Sadly this even applies to referendums, many of which are on European issues. Brexit is the living example of what can happen when those most affected by a question are excluded from the opportunity of expressing their view on it (British citizens living in Europe or EU citizens residing in the UK at the time of the referendum). It is undeniable that the EU as it stands today has the obligation and responsibility to learn from Brexit, especially as we are now witnessing how the lack of political rights can push the wider rights–based construction to collapse in the blink of an eye, like a house built of playing cards.

We need an EU which can show leadership in times of crisis and this will require courageous answers to the questions raised by our current predicaments. European solutions to the current overlapping crises facing us (health, climate and environment) could derive from a revision of EU Citizenship as a political construction to be amped up and made relevant for the 21st century. This would require not only adding new rights to it, such as health, digital or environmental rights but also filling in the gaps regarding political rights, enabling EU citizens on the move to have a say in deciding the direction of government in their Member State of residence. Without doing so, the EU will continue to be suffocated by the democratic deficit at its heart.

As the UN Human Rights declaration also states in Article 21: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, either directly or through chosen representatives”. One route cannot work without the other. Reforms to European democracy to become more participatory cannot succeed without reforms to representative democracy. Citizenship must be fought for and the first transnational citizenship of the modern era is no exception.

As the Conference on the Future of Europe is unfolding in the background, events to develop this conversation are taking place across the EU. Currently, the ECIT Foundation is supporting a youth led European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) campaign, Voters Without Borders, seeking to extend voting rights to EU citizens on the move in the national elections in their countries of residence.

In November 2021, The European Commission published the “Reinforcing Democracy and Integrity of Elections” package. Other initiatives on electoral reform are being proposed by the new Government in Germany and debate on EU political reform is being spearheaded in the European Parliament by VOLT, the EU’s first transitional party.

Finally, 2022 brought France to the helm of the Presidency of the Council of the EU, which has ‘belonging’ as one of its key themes. It is high time that the political belonging of those EU Citizens who reside in another member state than their own is fully recognised.

With each new step forward in its evolution, the EU sought to provide a vision for modern leadership – it is time for a new Treaty to emerge, but only if it paves the way for a deeper human rights–based EU citizenship construction, which starts by mending the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU.

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