Initiative for ‘Permanent EU Citizenship’: British exceptionalism or call for European solidarity?

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Initiative for ‘Permanent EU Citizenship': British exceptionalism or call for European solidarity?
Photograph: Alexandra Person.

The EU Citizenship 2017 initiative has run as a European Citizens’ Initiative since late July, thus far accumulating nearly 100,000 signatures. The initiative, seeking to ensure that one cannot lose one’s EU citizenship once it has been attained even if one’s home country leaves the EU, can be characterised as a cry of help from the British pro-EU grassroots to the EU institutions. In the UK, 114% of the national threshold has already been achieved, while in Romania that comes in second, the proportion is 10%. Is the project just a “British Citizens’ Initiative” cloaked in the EU flag, or indeed an opportunity for non-Brits to express European solidarity towards those in need?

British campaign culture brought to Brussels

In the UK, parliamentary petitions have been employed by pro-European campaign groups and active individuals, but with few results. Parliamentary debates, granted after 100,000 signatures, have taken place on a referendum on the Brexit deal and on the parliamentary vote on the deal to include an option to stay in the EU, and on Monday the UK Parliament is set to debate withdrawing Article 50 if the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign breached electoral law during the referendum campaign (which it did). Many more have reached 10,000 signatures, prompting a copy-pasted response from the government, talking about the 2016 referendum and the ‘will of the people’. Petition fatigue is creeping in among campaigners, as active Remainers are forgetting which ones they have signed already. Often the purpose is not to make a policy proposal potentially acceptable to the government (for someone who parrots the “will of the people” line, Theresa May is remarkably unwilling to engage with the people), but to make a political point.

As such, the Permanent EU Citizenship initiative is an extension of British campaigning culture to the EU-level context. The initiative, in a sense, seems like an attempt at a gimmicky trick to enact a significant change in the EU’s legal framework. It also seems like an abject rejection of the principle that a non-Member State cannot have it better than a Member State. Successive UK governments have become notorious for demanding special concessions and rights in the EU, and it’s not difficult to view this initiative as another example of such exceptionalism. The campaign website is heavily focused on the UK, with few arguments to be found as to why other countries’ citizens should sign the initiative.

Opportunity to show solidarity

On the other hand, the idea is not alien to the EU27 side either. Back in 2017, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt proposed a model whereby UK citizens could “keep EU citizenship on an individual basis”. He pointed to the emotional distress that the millions of Remain voters are suffering from, and clearly thought of the matter in terms of solidarity towards fellow pro-Europeans.

Towards Scotland, there has been remarkable solidarity because the country voted to stay in the EU. Perhaps there is an element of support for the small, sympathetic, oppressed nation whose government has made sure to champion openness and tolerance. For the Remainers, it may be harder to gain sympathy because it’s easy to instinctively conflate people with their government. This is what the Remain campaigners are clear on: their government may dislike the EU, but they are not their government. In that sense, the European Citizens’ Initiative is as deserving of sympathy as the Scottish pro-European cause.

You would, however, hope for a more European perspective from the campaign - a recognition that support from the continent is valued and, in this case, in fact essential. Treating the campaign to get the required signatures from the six other countries seriously, rather than as a mere extension of a fundamentally UK-centred effort, would be a good start towards regarding the EU membership of the country as a good in itself, rather than as a means to some other end.

I signed the initiative as a Finnish national because I know many British Remain campaigners who are truly “European at heart”. Perhaps many more are than I realise, but to make the matter clear, a pro-European from the UK would be well-advised to think like a European, not only like a Remainer.

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