The EU could welcome individuals as well as countries – and create a new kind of citizenship for the modern world.
Imagine an Italian, a Ukrainian and a Briton having a meal in Berlin. They can all order à la carte in the restaurant, yet only the Italian can remain in Germany indefinitely without a visa, vote for Berlin’s mayor in elections or receive full German healthcare. While the three friends may all be European, only the Italian is a European citizen, giving them rights and benefits denied to the other two.
Here is an idea: could European citizenship be extended to citizens of countries that are not part of the European Union?
European citizenship, granted automatically to anyone with the nationality of an EU country, is additional and parallel to national citizenship. It grants holders a limited, but meaningful, set of rights and benefits that are applicable throughout the territory of the EU. Some of the most consequential include the right to reside and work anywhere and access social security. Some are political, such as the right to vote for or stand in municipal elections. And some ensure protection, such as that guaranteed by the charter of fundamental rights of the EU.
European citizenship is currently bestowed only to citizens of member states of the EU. But there is no reason why that should remain so. There is a lively conversation developing around the prospective enlargement of the union, which could eventually expand its membership from 27 to 35 states. Ukraine and Moldova are about to receive the green light to enter negotiations to join, while the western Balkans are promised an acceleration of their own bid. Yet the process takes at least a decade to complete.
Could the European Union not integrate people before it integrates countries? Couldn’t Ukrainian, Moldovan or Albanian citizens acquire European citizenship while they wait for their country to complete the EU accession process? And could this become a model for a renewed partnership with Britain? One day, perhaps, with Turkey?
The innovation represented by the concept of European citizenship is often under-appreciated. Traditional international agreements always have governments and states taking centre stage: a Mexican person, for instance, may benefit from tariff-free trade with the US because the two governments have signed a treaty. The benefits of the agreement are inherently linked to being a Mexican or US actor.
The benefits derived from European citizenship, on the other hand, emerge directly out of who that person has become: a citizen of the European Union. There is no logical necessity for that person’s national state to be a member of the EU – or to be in the picture at all. In principle, one could imagine individuals from across the world meeting certain conditions and being offered European citizenship as a parallel and complementary form of citizenship – for instance, people suffering political persecution.
The UK inched towards a somewhat similar idea with Commonwealth citizenship. And yet, this remained very limited – for instance, concerning freedom of movement – and too intrusive, imposing the British monarch as the head of state. Above all, it was directly linked and limited to empire. A European commonwealth could start from securing the wider European region around a common sense of belonging and a common, if limited, set of benefits. In other words, a common citizenship.
The first and easiest step would be integrating the inhabitants of those countries that are anyway eventually due to join the EU. A second step could include countries that either do not want to join or have feeble prospects of joining – such as the UK or Turkey. And a third, more ambitious step would be to question the very boundaries of that European citizenship: could it be extended, for instance, to citizens of the southern Mediterranean?
Handing over a complementary citizenship to inhabitants of the wider region may appear inconsequential. But think how today’s conflicts merge state-of-the-art technology with obsolete ideas. Disrupting concepts such as those of the nation, territory or citizenship means going to the heart of today’s international confrontations.
While Europe may have no Silicon Valley and no Shenzhen, it is a unique laboratory of political innovation in ways that neither the US nor China can match: it is the world’s only attempt at advancing humanity beyond its separation in antagonistic nation states. As war returns to the European continent and to the Mediterranean, the role of the EU may lie not so much in aping other great powers as in showing a path beyond great power competition. Equalising the rights of Italian, British and Ukrainian friends meeting in Berlin, and perhaps inviting friends from Turkey and Tunisia to the party, is a humble but consequential place to start.
Lorenzo Marsili is a philosopher, activist, author and director of the Berggruen Institute Europe