EU citizenship in an inter-cultural union

John Parry
By John Parry

Over past decades, Europe has seen the development of two apparently contradictory trends. The first is the realisation that countries can more effectively defend their own interests and prosperity if they work much closer together than in the past, to the point, in fact, of merging some of their national competences within a supranational political structure: namely, the European Union, a body which has progressed to a level of integration at which it has abolished border controls between its member states, established a common currency and a common citizenship.

The second trend would seem to take the opposite direction. It stresses the need for decisions to be taken as close as possible to the people affected by them, which means strengthening smaller political units such as regional authorities or even breaking up big states into smaller but more coherent ones. As examples of such moves we might cite the recent establishment of regional parliamentary assemblies in the United Kingdom, the pressures in the Basque region of Spain, the secession of Slovakia, and the bitter experiences in South-East Europe. These examples vary considerably in detail and motivation; but seen from a long-term, historical viewpoint, the underlying message is remarkably similar. (1)

Although these two trends may appear contradictory they are in fact complimentary and must be considered as important elements in developing an innovative, multi-layered political structure for Europe. All these new states and regions, while emphasizing their own separate identities and in several cases their new nationality, see their future as being within the European Union and voluntarily accept the merging of sovereignty in certain key areas, including aspects of citizenship.


The question of citizenship is particularly sensitive. Most states are jealous of their right to provide for their own nationals. But the idea of a supra-national code of individual rights, binding on all signatory states, is not new. In modern Europe the first step came in 1950 with the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights backed up by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which gave citizens the right to appeal against rulings made by their own government.

At roughly the same period the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (2) was being negotiated, setting up the supranational institutions with which we are still familiar today in the European Union. Its immediate task was the coordination of an important but limited range of economic activities but its long-term purpose, as stated in the treaty’s Preamble was to create “the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts”. It outlawed discrimination between nationals of the member states employed in the coal and steel industries and thereby, perhaps unwittingly, took the first step towards a European citizenship.

Six years later in the Treaty of Rome these provisions were extended to cover employment in all occupations, including the self-employed, thereby making freedom to work without discrimination on nationality grounds available for all member states’ citizens. In addition, the Rome treaty banned discrimination between men and women in the matter of equal pay for equal work. A series of rulings by the Court of Justice subsequently extended this principal to cover retirement age, pensions and equality of treatment in other, work-related respects. In effect, the roots of this embryo European citizenship, though that term was not yet used, lay in the concept of non-discrimination.

It was not until the Maastricht Treaty [1992] that EU citizenship was formally introduced as a legal concept. All nationals of a member state are also automatically EU citizens who “shall enjoy the rights imposed by this Treaty and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby” (3). This is not, we note, a citizenship based on ethnicity but purely on a person’s legal status. It gives EU citizens the legal right, subject to enabling legislation, to “move freely and reside in any member state within the territory of the Union”. In other words, freedom of movement was no longer confined to economic activities but became a general right to be enjoyed by students, pensioners, and indeed anyone with adequate financial means. They may take employment or run a business, and vote or even stand as a candidate in municipal and European parliamentary elections in the member state where they now live, though not in national elections.

When EU citizenship was first introduced many people feared it was an attempt to replace national citizenship and would undermine their national identity. A later treaty amendment therefore made it clear that “Citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship.” Legally, therefore, we enjoy a multi-layered citizenship.


The question of identity is more complex. A person’s identity is easier to recognise than to define, involving as it does questions of language, culture, religion and a whole range of other factors. When shared, it can bring with it a sense of confidence, and of belonging to a group. Many different identities may co-exist happily within the same country though there is always the danger of discrimination which in times of crisis can lead to open conflict. One thinks not only of events in South-East Europe, but also of Northern Ireland and of the riots which recently took place in certain industrial cities in England as well as the frequency of racial attacks in many parts of Europe and elsewhere. The bitterness and residual hatred which result from such conflicts are not easy to heal.

In the modern, industrial world attempts to maintain ethnically “pure” and culturally monotone societies have usually been associated with dictatorships, mostly short-lived. Democracy, in its essence, allows people to develop as individuals, therefore accommodating a potentially wide variety of opinions, faiths, and ways of life.

This variety is most noticeable in the European Union which by its very nature is faced with the challenge of providing security for people with very different traditions and cultures. This multicultural aspect of the EU is evident in the many different languages we speak, and in the great diversity of religious faiths ranging from several versions of Christianity – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Calvinist – to Judaism, Islam and several others. Enlargement will further increase the Union’s diversity.

Multicultural citizenship

In recognition of this diversity the European Union has in recent years placed an increased emphasis on what are best described as citizenship values. They are broadly the common values of “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law” (4). Recent directives express these values in more concrete terms. To the earlier legislation banning discrimination on the grounds of nationality and gender the new directives now in force add a guarantee of equal treatment – regardless of racial or ethnic origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation – in employment and access to services and also a ban religious discrimination in employment. This legislation applies to all persons legally resident in the EU, whether nationals of member states or not. The full panoply of such rights is now codified in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In addition, certain rights available to EU citizens only, such as the freedom to seek work or reside in any other member state, may soon also be extended to any third country nationals who have lived legally in the EU for a qualifying period of time.

The underlying message is clear. The European Union today offers the world a vision of how people of many different cultures, countries and regions can live together in mutual respect (5). But there is still a long way to go, for the structure is far from perfect. In particular, what started as an agreement between governments must now involve the citizens more directly in their own future, hence the Laeken Summit decision that the next round of EU reforms should be prepared by a convention of citizens’ representatives both from the member states and from the European level, including observers from the applicant countries. Whereas, at the beginning, closer economic integration provided the means for a closer union between peoples, the emphasis today lies equally on involving the citizens in the debate.

The author James Joyce wrote in one of his letters that, “Our civilisation is an immense woven fabric in which very different elements are mixed.” That combination of experience, faith and the genetic characteristics which make up each person’s identity also contributes to the formation of group identities. Through its citizenship legislation the European Union has established a framework within which these different identities can exist peacefully side by side in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The European vision, therefore, is not of a new continent-wide nation but of a different kind of political and social structure from any we have known in the past: a multi-layered, multi-national, multi-regional and multicultural democracy organised on federal principles and based on mutual respect between its diverse peoples and cultures. Of course there will continue to be many problems. The key question is how to deal with them. For this new European Union to function properly citizens and their organisations will need to maintain a constant watch on what is being done in their name, but this is the true meaning of a citizens’ Europe. It is not simply a matter of rights but also of participation.

(1) The EU’s Committee of the Regions is a further sign of this development.
(2) Treaty of Paris, 1951
(3) See consolidated Treaty Establishing the European Community [TEC], Articles 17-22.
(4) See consolidated Treaty on European Union [TEU], Article 6 para.1
(5) See TEU, Article 6, para.2

This talk was given by John Parry, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union, at a seminar organised by the Europe House Zagreb on 2 February 2002. John Parry may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of Federal Union.

More information

Citizens in Europe, citizens of Europe: background paper

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