There’s more to European citizenship than free movement

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

European citizenship goes beyond just free movement. [BalkansCat/ Shutterstock]

When freedom of movement was written into the Treaties, the hope was that citizens would become more mobile and, in turn, more European. But instead of uniting Europeans, free movement has become politically divisive, writes Rainer Bauböck.

Rainer Bauböck is a professor at the European University Institute (EUI) and director of the GlobalCit Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre.

In the sovereign debt crisis, strongly diverging interests emerged between creditor and debtor states. In the refugee crisis, we have seen similarly deep divides between frontline, transit, destination and bystander countries.

Brexit may result in a further blurring of the distinction between member and associated states.

Potentially, Union citizenship ought to be what unites Europeans as individual members of the European Union but it needs to go beyond what has so far represented its biggest achievement, which is free movement.

When freedom of movement was written into the Treaties, the hope was that this would make Europeans more mobile and that mobility would make them more European. Mobility between EU member states is still low, although it has been boosted by Eastern enlargement.

But instead of uniting Europeans, free movement has become politically divisive. The fear that it erodes national welfare systems was among the most important motives for voting Leave in the Brexit referendum.

Free movement rights will not turn those who are immobile into Europeans. While younger generations tend to experience Europe as a space of opportunities where they can get higher education and find jobs or partners, older generations experience a devaluation of their skills and life styles. Mobility is not only an opportunity; the expectation of having to be mobile breeds resentment among those who feel literally left behind.

This social cleavage between mobile and immobile Europeans feeds into a change in the political landscape. There is a new divide in political attitudes between those supporting openness and European integration and those demanding closure, and it cuts across the traditional divide between left and right.

So what could be done to turn EU citizenship from the privilege of mobile Europeans into a common bond that strengthens unity in diversity?

Curtailing freedom of movement would be the wrong answer. Free movement needs to be made compatible with the variety of European welfare regimes but social protection will not become more sustainable in a protectionist Europe with closed national labour markets.

Instead of hollowing out the core of current EU citizenship, we need to add stuff to it that has more unifying power than just mobility rights.

The first is a European ‘social citizenship’ dimension. Back in 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker had already proposed a ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’. Instead of supporting deeper integration only within the Euro zone, it should focus on individual rights and levels of protection that apply universally across all member states.

A second suggestion concerns ‘direct taxation’. The EU taxes its citizens only indirectly: citizens pay taxes to their national governments, which pay contributions to the European budget. Indirect taxation has the effect of increasing the distance between citizens and the European institutions, so that they see them only through the distorting lenses of domestic politics.

Direct taxation would give EU citizens a sense of direct ownership in the EU institutions, reduce conflicts over member state contributions and provide incentives for the formation of pan-European political parties.

My third proposal for enhancing European citizenship concerns ‘democracy’. EU citizenship means not only free movement but also the fundamental freedom that comes with democracy. In a Union of states the primary level of citizenship is that of the member states, hence the value of EU citizenship depends first of all on the quality of democracy in the member states.

The rise of nationalist populist parties creates today new threats, both for democracy in the member states and for the future of the EU. The EU has legal tools to sanction a member state whose government violates fundamental European values – the suspension of voting rights in the Council according to Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, and the infringement procedure.

The EU institutions should not be afraid of using such tools, which would reinforce a positive perception based on values.

‘Unity in Diversity’ does not only apply to the European Union only. It also applies to the member states themselves since it expresses a quintessential democratic idea.

Democracy is the only form of government that can be accepted as legitimate by everybody in societies where there are structural conflicts of interests, where people differ fundamentally in their ideas about how one should live and what is good for all, and where citizens cherish their particular ethnic, religious, linguistic, sexual and lifestyle identities.

How can people who diverge in their interests, who disagree with each other and differ from each other regard coercive government and its collectively binding decisions as legitimate? They will do so only if – in spite of all their differences – they respect each other as citizens belonging to the same democratic people. Shared citizenship is what unites diverse societies in democratic states.

Diversity within the European Union presents another layer of complexity. The citizens of Europe are not united under a single government. The Union recognises not only the diversity of interests, ideas and identities of its citizens, but also the variety of democratic constitutions of its member states. A Union with differentiated and overlapping integration regimes must also recognise that there are different ways of belonging to the Union itself.

Maintaining unity in spite of such deep diversity cannot be achieved through a citizenship that manifests itself only through free movement across borders. In order to keep an internally differentiated Union united, European citizenship needs to be enriched with a social dimension, substantive duties and with a ‘democratic quality guarantee’ for every citizen, in every member state.

Diversity is the lifeblood of democracy and the European Union’s motto ‘United in Diversity’ commits it to this conception of democracy. Now is the time to stand up and defend it.

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