ECAS welcomes the EU Citizenship Report 2020, which was adopted on 15 December by the European Commission. Following a difficult 2020, which as a result of COVID-19 brought limitations to freedom of movement on a scale never seen before, we believe that mobile EU citizens need reassurance more than ever that protection and promotion of their rights and freedoms remain at the heart of the European project.
ECAS’ mission is to empower citizens in order to create a more inclusive and stronger European Union by promoting and defending citizens’ rights, and developing and supporting mechanisms to increase the democratic participation and engagement of citizens and citizens organisations with the EU. We are in touch with citizens on a regular basis, providing them with advice on their rights and legal assistance through the Your Europe Advice service. Moreover, we conduct research and implement projects involving mobile EU citizens. We are thus aware of the obstacles that mobile EU citizens and their family members experience when moving to or residing in another Member State, as reported in our recent Policy Paper. We are glad to learn that some of these obstacles have been also acknowledged by the European Commission and that further actions aimed at empowering EU citizens and protecting their rights have been announced and can be expected in the near future.
Improved Legal Certainty When Exercising Free Movement Rights
Out of all EU citizens’ rights, free movement is definitely the most used and the most cherished by EU citizens. In fact, the number of mobile EU citizens is constantly growing, currently amounting to around 13.3 million. However, despite this positive trend, mobile EU citizens and their non-EU family members continue facing legal and administrative challenges when entering other Member States, applying for residence documents, accessing healthcare or job market, trying to be politically active, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about additional challenges and unprecedented complications for EU citizens’ rights. To address the outbreak of the pandemic, many Member States introduced partial or almost complete closures of their external and internal borders, restricting the movement of citizens entering and leaving the country. As a result, many mobile EU citizens were separated from their loved ones and found themselves unable to return home.
The challenges experienced by mobile EU citizens are often a result of incorrect implementation of the Directive 2004/38/EC or difficulties experienced by national authorities when putting free movement rules in practice. Similarly, certain notions of the Directive are not clearly defined, leaving large room for interpretation to Member States. ECAS welcomes the Commission’s commitment to “review the 2009 guidelines on free movement in order to improve legal certainty for EU citizens exercising their free movement rights, and to ensure a more effective and uniform application of the free movement legislation across the EU” (Action no. 7). At the same time, ECAS calls on the European Commission not to limit the revision to the judgements of the European Court of Justice, but to also provide clarity on certain “grey areas”, as highlighted in the ECAS’ call “Towards a Citizen-Centric European Union” and elaborated upon in detail in our Policy Paper.
Public authorities and civil servants are often the first points of contact for mobile EU citizens. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the information they provide regarding EU rights (residence, access to healthcare, social benefits, political participation, etc.) is accurate and up-to-date. Unfortunately, as our research has shown, this is not always the case. Therefore, ECAS believes and strongly advocates for the provision of continuous training to public administrations on EU citizenship rights. We hope that the announced funding will also be able to serve this purpose, for instance through the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values Programme.
Effective Exercise of Voting Rights
EU citizenship gives every EU citizen the right to vote and stand as a candidate in elections to the EP and municipal elections in their Member State of residence, under the same conditions as nationals of that State. While the number of EU citizens of voting age has been steadily increasing in the EU, amounting to 3% of the total EU voting population, citizens are either not aware of their electoral rights or experience challenges when they want to participate in elections. In fact, only a low number of citizens exercise their electoral rights. What are the reasons behind this trend? The results of the ECAS’ crowdsourcing exercise indicate that citizens: experience difficulties in the electoral registration process; have insufficient information on how to vote; and lack knowledge of the local political system. These problems have been also reported in the recent Eurobarometer and confirmed in the EU Citizenship Report 2020.
As part of its call for a Citizen-Centric European Union, ECAS recommended EU and national decision-makers to develop and implement a monitoring system in order to ensure that there are no EU mobile citizens precluded from exercising their political rights due to incompatible national and local rules or administrative hurdles. Therefore, in line with that, we welcome the commitment of the European Commission to “explore, in close cooperation with the Parliament, the possibility of creating a dedicated shared resource to support EU citizens in exercising their electoral rights, as well as providing additional avenues for them to report hurdles and incidents affecting their political participation”.
Our research indicates that mobile EU citizens are often unaware of deadlines, rules and the correct steps they should take in order to register on the electoral roll. Therefore, access to targeted, reliable and relevant information is of key importance for improving inclusive participation of mobile EU citizens. An update of the directives on voting rights of mobile EU citizens in municipal and European elections is one of the Actions announced by the Commission (Action no. 1) with an aim to strengthen mobile citizens’ ability to exercise their electoral rights. We are glad to read that “the provision of information on the deadlines, the implications and durability of voter registrations, the exchange of information on the registration of mobile EU citizen voters and candidates in European elections” are among the areas that will be covered by the update.
Empowering Citizens’ Participation in the Democratic Process
An important societal transformation is taking place throughout Europe and across the world. A new deliberative-collaborative e-democracy model is emerging which can contribute to a more open and inclusive form of policy-making by involving citizens through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
In the last five years, ECAS has been consistently working on exploring the potential of ICT in reducing the gap between political elites and citizens in order to create a more engaged citizenship through civic tech.
As part of its call for a Citizen-Centric European Union, ECAS has been advocating to complement representative democracy with collaborative elements of participatory democracy in order to reduce the gap between political elites and citizens and to transform their relationship into more of a partnership, especially for the co-creation of policy. Moreover, we believe that the Commission should divide the existing online consultations on EU policy-making into two parallel channels: one which is designed to better gain the views of organised interests and one which is tailored to collect the insights of citizens through crowdsourcing mechanisms.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is a great opportunity to pilot different digital democracy methods, to assess their effectiveness, to improve them based on the lessons learnt and to make them an integral part of the European democracy toolbox.
We therefore welcome the Commission’s commitment to “support the active participation of citizens in the democratic process, and to take innovative approaches to involving them in the legislative process to ensure that EU laws are fit-for-purpose and align with EU values” (Action no. 4) and we are looking forward to its practical implementation.
ECAS is looking forward to the Actions announced in the EU Citizenship Report 2020. We believe they will contribute to improving the ability of EU citizens to exercise their freedom of movement and political rights and engage with the European decision-making process in a meaningful and collaborative manner. Alongside the European Commission, ECAS will continue its work towards an inclusive, transparent, citizen-centric and democratic European Union in which citizens’ rights are at the heart of decision-making at all levels and in which citizens are informed, consulted and active participants. We remain available and open to work in partnership with the European Commission, other EU institutions and other relevant stakeholders on the implementation of the actions set out in this Report.
 Your Europe Advice is an EU advice service for the public, provided by the legal experts from the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) operating under contract with the European Commission. It consists of a team of 60 independent lawyers who cover all EU official languages and are familiar with EU law and national laws in all EU countries. YEA provides free and personalised advice within a week, clarifies the European law that applies to specific cases and explains to citizens how they can exercise their EU rights.
 European Commission, EU Citizenship Report 2020
 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on guidance for better transposition and application of Directive 2004/38/EC on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States, COM/2009/0313 final