The myth of an ‘EU citizenship’

I don’t always rejoice in having a French passport. This, for all sorts of reasons that I won’t expose here. But yesterday, it felt like a huge big stone had fallen right next to me, and I had miraculously escaped alive. After all, I did spend a large chunk of my life in the UK (10 years, to be exact) and would still be there if a German (nearly a Dane, really) hadn’t stolen my heart and Italy hadn’t given me a job. Even now, having spent a couple of years away from Britain, I can’t stop thinking it is an intrinsic part of me. You see, the Brits actually laugh at my jokes, and we have a common dislike for people who don’t queue, and a common sense of comfort when pouring water over a reused teabag in an RSPB* mug (*Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, if you must ask). So the feeling of dread I had yesterday came from imagining what it would be like to be a Brit – I mean, one of the 16 million Brits who voted ‘remain’ – and waking up to the Brexit disaster.

Imagine being a ‘remain’ voter. Perhaps you were planning, just the day before, your next holiday in Spain. Or you had just booked your flight to go and see your partner in the Czech Republic. Or you were filling in an application for that amazing job in Germany. Or thinking of coming to the continent to study. Or just e-mailing your friends across the Channel. And now you’re not sure of anything, what it will mean for you, your friends, your relationships, your future, for that silly little brown book that still bears the words ‘European Union’ on its cover and contains that picture of you that you dislike so much.

I think this says something very fundamental about the notion of ‘EU citizenship’. Being an EU citizen is just not the same thing as being a British, French or Slovenian citizen. Being a Slovenian citizen means that you are a citizen of Slovenia and this is something you get for life: barring extreme circumstances, Slovenia won’t strip you of your citizenship. Being an EU citizen is something you get in virtue of being a citizen of such or such country. That country acts at an unavoidable intermediary between you and the EU. And if, for whichever political reason, it decides to break its link with Europe, you can be stripped of your citizenship. This is not what I call being a citizen of the EU. This is what I call having some honorary title with little real-life relevance. No wonder that the 17 million Brits who voted ‘leave’ did not really feel any special relationship to the European Union.

But then, voting ‘leave’ was just the wrong answer. We (and I now say ‘we’ because it concerns every person living in Europe) should not only be in favour of ‘stay’, but ‘stay more’. We cannot be citizens of Europe if our citizenship can be stripped at the whim of a nation. I dare say that a lot of us, especially the ones who work, live and love across borders, feel by now more attached to the idea of the EU than to the idea of any particular member state. A lot of us would gladly scrape the nation off our passport and just retain the two words ‘European Union’.

The UK referendum was a strange statistical construct. There are 508 million Europeans and 65 million UK citizens, 46 million of which were eligible to vote. 17 million of those stripped the remaining 48 million of their EU citizenship, without their consent. This will seem terribly bizarre to anybody whose identity is predominantly European: it means, basically, that British citizens, in virtue of their UK citizenship, stripped EU citizens (imagine EU were a country) of their nationality, through a vote where only a small portion of EU citizens took part.

But of course this is all fine because being an EU national does not have anything to do with having EU nationality. The EU is supposed to have authority over its members, but a member state can without problem strip a person from their EU citizenship. I am a computer scientist and this looks like a bug to me. Or perhaps it’s not a bug. It is just that Europe as it is was never intended for people.

The phrase ‘EU citizenship’is a huge misnomer. It has little to do with what anybody would associate with ‘citizenship’. It is time to take the concept back and make it what it should really be: a relation between the people of Europe and Europe, away from the nationalist interests of member states. So I’ll rejoice a second about my French passport and my right to roam free in (most of) Europe, but not for long. I’ll rejoice a lot more, and feel a lot safer, when it can become a true European passport.

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