Since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force with the European Union (EU) Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, more then ever before are citizens’ rights, rule of law and democracy no longer the sole jurisdiction of the Member States – it is a European affair. We care about EU citizens and their participation in the build-up of the European process…
With these words, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Juan López Aguilar opened the joint debate on EU citizenship rights on October 29th, 2020. Organised by the AFCO, JURI, LIBE, and PETI committees, the hearing was held to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on freedom of movement and democratic participation of EU citizens. This context is important, as it is in time of crisis that these freedoms, and the laws that guarantee them, are really put to the test. The emergency measures taken by Member States in response to the epidemic have had an impact on everyday life, on the right to privacy, on the rights to express ourselves through assemblies and demonstrations. However, even in a situation of protecting health, measures should be in accordance with the principles established in the fundamental rights and should be properly time-framed.
The messages and emotion during the hearing were powerful, but the actions to back up the words are still insufficient. As Assya Kavrakova, ECAS Executive Director, stressed, mobile EU citizens have been experiencing for years persistent problems with their rights to residence, to healthcare and to family life, when moving to another Member State. The Covid-19 pandemic only magnified these challenges, with the restrictive measures contributing to a feeling of a double lock-down for them: being separated both from their families and from within their host communities. An ongoing ECAS survey looking into the impact restrictive measures have had on mobile EU citizens shows that as a result, a majority of them have been experiencing mental health issues.
The response to these obstacles should include both a short- and long-term focus. First, the European Commission must step up and provide a coordinated response to the problems mobile EU citizens face during the pandemic, carrying out its role as a Guardian of the Treaties bravely and straightforward. For the long-term, it is necessary that the European Commission issues a new Communication on Directive 2004/38 (EU Citizens’ Right Directive) in order to provide clarity to certain concepts which currently are wrongly or too narrowly interpreted by some Member States (MS), such as the concepts of ‘sufficient resources’ and ‘comprehensive sickness insurance’. As illustrated in the video below, this ambiguity continues to cause EU citizens to experience severe limitations to their rights, finding themselves in a limbo while in a new country:
Ms Kavrakova reminded that the last such communication was issued more then 10 years ago, in 2019. There is a pressing need for new structured guidelines that close the existing loopholes and that take stock of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 epidemic. Additional efforts need to be made to ensure that mobile EU citizens can still live a decent life in their host communities and do not experience mental problems as a consequence of the current difficult situation. Ms Kavrakova used the opportunity to ask the present MEPs to support ECAS’s request to the EC for new Communication.
At the same time and equally important, there must be the political will on behalf of Member States to uphold freedom of movement. Too often, for example, MS do not know who the competent authority is in terms of trans-border healthcare cases. As such issues are often in the hands of national public administrations, they must be provided with continuous training on EU citizenship rights to ensure equal treatment and no discrimination of mobile EU citizenship in exercising their rights.
Responding to the discussion, Commissioner for Justice, Mr Didier Reynders, shared that many of the expressed concerns will be reflected in the upcoming EU Citizenship report, to be published by the end of the year. This policy initiative traditionally searches to have a tangible value for citizens on the ground and this year’s edition will propose new priorities and action that aim to strengthen EU citizenship. It will also bring more attention to providing accessible information on election procedures (national and EU-wide) for mobile EU citizens. Based on ECAS’ experience from past and ongoing projects, Ms Kavrakova agreed that such simple, but effective, measures lead to good results. For example, organised in the framework of the ECAS collaborative FAIR EU project, in the run-up to the 2018 Belgium local elections the VoteBrussels campaign aimed to provide citizens with information on their voting rights in their respective national languages. As a result, the number of non-Belgiums who registered to vote increased twice, and the overall voting participation increased by 70 percent in the Brussels regions, compared to an overall decrease in Wallonia and Flounders.
Turning their focus to democratic participation, speakers noted that as the Covid-19 crisis has obliged the majority of us to use digital tools, this shift should be used to develop new ways to engage citizens and involve them better in the decision-making process. On the other hand, as Daniela Vancic from Democracy International noted in a recent article for the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum, civic participation is taking a different shape. Covid-19 has limited the possibility of citizen assemblies, demonstrations and protests, and citizens have to find creative and innovative forms of public action.
Read the full article here.
ECAS encourages EU citizens to contact Your Europe Advice – a free online EU advice service provided by ECAS legal experts, operating under contract with the European Commission – if they have any enquiries regarding cross-border health care, consumer and passenger rights, social benefits or any other freedom of movement-related questions. Our experts will provide an answer relevant to your specific situation within 72 hours.