2013 marks the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the European Union Citizenship under the Maastricht Treaty and hence the theme for the “European Year” 2013 is rather an unsurprising choice, also in the perspective of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is believed that the direct involvement of citizens in the decision-making would make the Union stronger and more political. In the words of José Manuel Barroso, “there must be a broad debate all over Europe, […] a debate of truly European dimension. We cannot continue trying to solve European problems just with national solutions. This debate has to take place in our societies and among our citizens.”1
As compared to the previous “theme years” of the European Union, “Volunteering “ in 2011 and “Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations” last year, this year’s theme seems to be a more ambitious one to be implemented. Especially in the current circumstances when, according to the most recent survey,2 38 per cent of the respondents did not consider themselves as a citizen of the European Union at all. Moreover, one would not consider the European citizens’ views to be exactly in the heart of concerns in the middle of the crisis. Or are these two issues, citizens’ participation and the crisis, indeed inseparable? Is Europe ready to respond to the needs of its citizens and do our responses have a real significance in solving the economic crisis as well as designing what the union of 2020 will look like?
The title of the theme year “European Year of Citizenship” appears to me somewhat ambiguous vis-à-vis its announced objectives. The activities of the year aim to increase civic engagement and democratic participation, to ensure that people know their rights as European Union citizens and to encourage public debate about what EU citizenship means for us. The EU is therefore not trying to turn Europe to “Citizens’ Europe” by the end of 2013 but rather deepen the idea of “Europe of the Citizens”. Suddenly, the cake that once seemed too large to be eaten is not that big anymore.
To find more about the theme year’s impacts on the local level, I decided to participate in discussion forums related to this topic across my city. Despite many attempts to present questions about citizenship in a positive light, the responses from the audience continually brought the focus back to Brussels as a boomerang: “will they ever solve the crisis?” or “has anyone really benefited from the EU membership?” Citizenship was not in the core of our concerns. However, no one can blame the EU for not making enough effort to promote these initiatives. Taking a quick glance at the EU’s official page for the Year of Citizenship I came across various events dedicated for citizens and their rights.
Just recently there was an online chat with a representative at DG Education and Culture discussing the Italian Erasmus students’ inability to vote in the upcoming general elections from abroad. Even though the EU has no competence in the matter of national elections in Member States, they can still instigate discussions and encourage initiatives to be taken to find a solution to this flaw in the Italian law. The overarching theme of this and many of the other events is to get the voice of the citizens heard while the EU listens.
What I came to understand is that the European Year of Citizens does not aim to create a Citizens’ Europe overnight, but rather to create platforms for fresh ideas through active discussion about the EU’s future direction in addition to spreading awareness of our citizens’ rights. Personally, I can instantly think of a dozen of good reasons for being a EU citizen (one being that I can travel from Helsinki to Lisbon, nearly 4,500 km crossing 9 borders without showing my passport – how awesome is that!) but this message also needs to be spread to those 38 per cent of the Europeans who still do not know. “Europe’s raison d’être is to empower Europeans,”1 isn’t it?
1. “State of the Union 2012 Address”, Accessed at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-12-596_en.htm
2. Standard Eurobarometer 77 (Spring 2012), Accessed at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb77/eb77_en.htm
3. José Manuel Barroso, “Political guidelines for the next Commission” (2009), p. 13, Accessed at: http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/president/pdf/press_20090903_en.pdf