Earlier this year I wrote a blog about the growing benefits of EU citizenship and the concerns that this raises, in my mind, for the position of stateless people in Europe (and potentially for stateless people in other regions where the EU citizenship model is inspiring similar forms of supranational membership). To date, the enjoyment of EU citizenship has been directly linked to nationality of an EU member state. As such, stateless people in Europe are denied EU citizenship and its manifold benefits, regardless of the reason for their statelessness or of their factual links to one or more EU countries (by birth, residence or otherwise). I was therefore intrigued to discover that there is, in some quarters at least, an ongoing discussion of whether access to EU citizenship should be regulated differently and offer more room for the inclusion of people who have built up a strong connection to Europe.
In 2002, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission convened a conference to discuss issues around migration and how to promote the integration of immigrants and refugees in the EU. This was at a time when the so-called European Convention was working towards new constitutional arrangements for the EU and based on the conclusions of the conference, the EESC addressed a resolution to the European Convention, calling on it to “examine the possibility of granting Union citizenship to third country nationals [i.e. non-EU member state nationals] with long-term resident status”. As the EESC went on to explain in its 2003 opinion on Access to European Union Citizenship, the idea of extending EU citizenship to long-term residents already enjoyed widespread support from political and social organisations in various member states, who had been lobbying on this matter for some time.
The EESC explained the underlying motivation for the expansion of the EU citizenship model using notions of equality and non-discrimination, fairness, inclusion and the promotion of successful integration. In its opinion, the EESC recalled that “between 15 and 20 million people who reside in the European Union but are not nationals of the Member States are discriminated against” and suggested that “in accordance with the principle of equality, such discrimination on the grounds of nationality must be eliminated”. It further elaborated that “European citizenship cannot be built without taking account of all these people” and “given that these people are asked to comply with the law, it is only fair that they should have the same rights as the rest of the community”. The EESC noted that the European Union is expanding to include more countries and, with it, EU citizenship is also being extended ever further. In light of this growing inclusiveness, “the EESC wants European citizenship to be extended inwards as well”. Finally, the EESC pointed out that extending EU citizenship to long-term residents would “make it easier for them to exercise their political rights and thereby improve integration, as European citizenship and the rights and obligations deriving from it are a very important factor for the integration of these people into host societies”. These, to my mind, are all compelling arguments for the expansion of EU citizenship beyond the bounds of EU member state nationals. Yet, so far, they have failed to move EU member states to accept a change in the way EU citizenship is regulated.
Thus, however well-motivated the 2003 plea by the European Economic and Social Committee was, the EU citizenship model still rests on the system of dependence on EU member state nationality. EU governments are still the gatekeepers for EU citizenship, regulating its access through the regulation of access to their own country’s nationality. But the discussion of whether this is a fair and appropriate system continues and the EESC has recently breathed new life into it. On the 16th of October 2013, a full ten years after the release of the opinion which was discussed above, the EESC issued a new opinion on A more inclusive citizenship open to immigrants. In this opinion, the call for the extension of EU citizenship to long-term residents is repeated and strengthened. Now, in the European Year of the Citizens, the EESC is suggesting that the status quo – in which EU member states decide through their individual nationality policy which people are European citizens and which are not - “must change, so that Union citizenship can be at the heart of European integration”. Indeed, the EESC even appears to suggest a new concrete measure for access to EU citizenship, namely a minimum period of five years residence, after which time migrants should be able to become EU citizens. I am convinced this would be a welcome development for all third-country nationals in Europe, but especially so for the EU’s stateless residents (who also received an explicit reference in the 2003 EESC opinion), many of whom were born and raised within Europe’s borders and yet who continue to be excluded from both the rights attached to nationality as well as those enjoyed by EU citizens.