By Nikolas Spanoudakis 

Being a citizen and holding citizenship is something relatively new in human history. The two concepts were first introduced during the ancient Athenian democracy. Fast forward to our modern times, another citizenship that was “invented” was the EU citizenship, which will be the focus of this article. The EU citizenship can be considered as a novelty in comparison with other citizenships, as it is not self-standing but additional to the national citizenships of the EU countries. But before diving further into the EU citizenship, it could be useful to get some inspiration from the Athenian democracy, just to put things into perspective.

Citizens in ancient Athens

A citizen in the ancient Athenian democracy had a lot of functions. He was a warrior in war time, a temporary judge or a politician, active in the general assembly of Athens. These functions were not the only ones, but it is beyond the scope of this article to expand further on this. What is important, however, is to underline that being a citizen implied a strong commitment to public affairs. In fact, it is remarkable that one of the first historians, Thucydides, writes in his books Thucydides’ histories that according to the influential statesman Pericles, those who were not engaged in public affairs but lived a private life were considered useless for the Athenian society. This sounds quite extreme, but maybe a point to reflect on later in this article. 

EU citizenship – what is this?

The EU citizenship was introduced in 1992 with the Maastricht Treaty, simultaneously with the creation of the European Union. The EU citizenship provides EU citizens with rights, freedoms and legal protection available under EU law. Did you know for example that as an EU citizen in a country outside the EU, you are entitled to diplomatic assistance if your country doesn’t have an embassy in that area?

At this point, it is important to mention that no EU institution has the right to grant or recall EU citizenship. Therefore, the fate of EU citizenship is bound to the course of the respective national citizenship. This becomes clear in the light of Brexit where British citizens are destined to lose their EU citizenship.

The very nature of EU citizenship hides an intrinsic challenge. As only the EU member states are entitled to grant the national, EU citizenship, the EU citizenship can be a reward misused by the member states. Recently the public attention was drawn to cases where people suspected for criminal activity were able to buy indirectly the EU citizenship through national investment attraction programmes. Another challenge which shouldn’t be underestimated is the risk of granting EU citizenship according to the political interests of the national governments. 

Rights and duties deriving from the EU citizenship

To me, it has always been vague which rights come along with my European citizenship. Although the relevant information is easily accessible, it is often not so attractive to read, to say the least. Furthermore, when I lived in my home country, my EU citizenship didn’t change anything significant in my everyday life. The first turn on how I saw EU citizenship was when I came to Sweden to study. It was fantastic that I didn’t have to pay any tuition fees, just like the Swedes, in contrast to students from third countries. Had I not had the chance to study for free, it would have been much more difficult to study for my master’s degree. Another wonderful privilege attached to EU citizenship is that I don’t need any sponsorship in order to get any job. This may sound insignificant, but I was quite shocked when I heard an Indonesian friend saying that he couldn’t get a job he really wanted, as his potential employer would not sponsor his work permit. Last but not least, I feel privileged to have the right to vote in the local elections even without having the Swedish citizenship. Thanks, EU!

When we talk about any citizenship, we usually focus on the rights that come with it. This is normal. Everybody enjoys having rights, with voting being a very fundamental of them. But the EU citizenship as any other comes with some duties. In my opinion, many of us feel our political duties to be fulfilled as we exercise our right to vote in the EU elections. Without doubt, voting should be exercised. But going back to the origins of the “citizen” in ancient Athens, there is an essential component that should be included: public engagement. 

So, if you want to be an outstanding EU citizen, take time and write to your favourite member of the European Parliament and tell him or her what is important to you. Inform yourself about what is going on on European level and form an opinion. If you like politics, become a member of a political party and promote the agenda which is closer to your heart. If you like activism, join Fridays for Future or another movement and march for your favourite cause. Save some energy for the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. There, you must have your say.

Some probably wonder if being engaged with public affairs would bring any results. Well, Greta Thunberg’s activism has shaped the EU’s agenda and paved the way for the Green Deal. Therefore, you can only be sure that your voice won’t be heard only if you decide to remain silent and passive.

If you have reached this line, probably you have some idea of what it means to be an EU citizen. However, given that the EU citizenship isn’t something static but something under continuous development, it needs your engagement in order to thrive. After all, the EU has always been “work in progress”!

By Nikolas Spanoudakis 

Illustration: Johanna Hagström

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