Youth and European citizenship: it’s not about economics!


After the II World War, European leaders felt that a common project in order to unite European countries both economically and politically was urgently needed. If peace was mainly understood conceived as an economic by-product or necessity, this vision has been complicated by the numerous enlargement of the EU as well as the idea of a Europe without frontiers.

As a result of these changes, it has become even more necessary to create a healthy environment for the coexistence of the different EU member state’s perceptions and approaches, while not homogenising them. One may say that the successful achievement of the idea of the ‘United States of Europe’, as Churchill projected, demanded that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

For this it was necessary, on the one hand, to foster the European identity speech based on intrinsic and inseparable core values, such as democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and, on the other hand, to gradually introduce some of these contents in non EU countries. In the end, the main challenge remained (as it still remains) in protecting and promoting European diversity while creating a unique voice within and around EU.

It was crucial that the populations of each state also engaged this European identity, sharing values and perspectives and finding a common understanding of what being a European should comprehend. In this sense, a bottom-up approach has become imperative not only for a stronger European Union but also as a way of legitimising it − in its action and in its simple existence. The key demographic to make this strategy work is without doubt young people (people between ages of 15-35). This is because this group above all has resources for change and sustainability. The consolidation of a united Europe cannot be achieved in the mainstream political level only;it is crucial that the populations of each state also engaged this European identity, sharing values, perceptions and finding a common understanding of what being a European should be.

Youth is something more than the main pillar of the active population, more than the guarantee of a sustainable welfare state, more than a sector of population seeking for job opportunities and then contributing for the country’s wealth. Young people are, particularly in Europe, the carrier and the vehicle of an intercultural pattern, of an open minded way of thinking; indeed, they are the ones more predisposed to travel and live abroad bringing with them more than the physical baggage.

Youth policies oriented by the European Commission are precisely in line with this perspective, aiming through international exchanges, internships, volunteering, etc. – mainly within the EU and for EU citizens − to create a safe space for sharing, eroding domestic borders and to create a cultural European Union. One may say that this bottom-up approach has become imperative not only for a stronger EU but also as a way of legitimising it – in its action and in its simple existence.

It is in this context that the concept of European citizenship is constructed. For being a EU citizen it is only necessary to hold a nationality of any EU state member, from this resulting the automatic access to a broad set of rights. This means that for any EU citizen (except in case of any ongoing legal restrictions) it is possible to move and reside freely within the EU, to vote in the European Parliament (EP) and municipal elections as well as stand as a candidate, among others.

Hereupon, we can identify two interesting questions which might be worth analysing. Firstly, considering that the rules to obtain each country’s nationality diverge from state to state, it is not possible to have a common – that is, European – understanding of what is needed to become a EU citizen. Secondly, these rights are linked to a generalised perception of relatively good living conditions which increases the EU’s attractiveness as well as European citizenship seeking, making this region a destination of interest for many migrant populations.
If we consider these two assumptions – the yet discretionarity of each state to define how to assign its nationality and the European Union as a hosting region – we can actually understand a phenomena which counters a de jure with a de facto EU citizenship.

European citizenship: de jure vs de facto

The ‘Citizenship of the Union’ was established by the Treaty Establishing the European Community and then transferred to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. As mentioned above, any person who holds the nationality of any state member of EU is a EU citizen, then enjoying a particular set of rights but also committed to certain duties.

The assignment of the nationality actually varies from state to state, meaning there is not a common understanding between the EU state members on what shall be the requirements to become a EU citizen. In this sense, we have cases where the ius sanguinis is yet valid to obtain the country nationality (i.e. it is enough to have parents or even grandparents who hold the nationality of the country in question) and there are others where ius sanguinis is no longer a means, prevailing the ius soli (being born there) or ius domicilii (living for a minimum period of time without being born there).

Taking this into consideration, it is easy to see that those are the perfect conditions to create what we will call the de facto EU citizens. These are the citizens who are actually engaged in the daily life of their reception country, already feeling and presenting sense of belonging as well as reproducing (and also giving some new inputs to) some of the local cultural practises. However, either for not being in a legal situation, for the origin country not allowing the double citizenship or for any other reason which precludes the person from meeting the necessary requirements to obtain the nationality, these persons do not hold the nationality of the EU state member and, consequently, are not EU citizens under the law (i.e. de jure citizens).

The main concern underlying this phenomena lies with the automatic exclusion of rights that these de facto EU citizens are subjected to. This means that, since they do not hold a EU passport, they are not taking advantage of the opportunities that come from it: move and reside freely within the EU, vote for and stand as a candidate in the EP and municipal elections, complain to the European Ombudsman, among others.

Nevertheless, this issue also entails other questions which might seem less important in the eyes of whom can practically take it for granted. The opportunity of studying in some European universities with free tuition fees, the advantage and ease of passing through the ‘EU citizens’ corridors in the airports without any bigger control or waiting, the chance of enjoying European youth exchanges, the possibility of having a European health insurance card, the feeling of protection when holding a EU passport in any hostile international/border situation.
The list could continue. As we may see, the advantages linked to a document where there is somewhere a blue flag with twelve yellow stars are more than many. The inevitable labelling process coming from this can actually produce a category of ‘second-class citizens’ and a justifiable complex of inferiority. The de facto EU citizens could actually be contributing to the European construction in a structured or even institutionalised way but they are not, fruit of a policy which paradoxically includes and excludes at the same time.

In this regard, it seems that youth politicians are underestimating the potential and the already achievements of a programme which has been deserving a huge amount of investment by European Commission. Current Erasmus + (former Youth in Action) leaves aside, mostly, non EU citizens, group which includes the de facto EU citizens. Then, these youngsters are not allowed to take advantage of these opportunities, meaning that they cannot take their voices into EU’s sharing and construction platforms nor bringing the values and perspectives there discussed back to their home or reception countries.

The (mis)perceptions about migrants: more than an economic asset

The EU has become a multicultural space, hosting millions of migrants, mainly young people, either European or not. There have been a lot of studies on what the contribution of these communities have been or can potentially be in the reception but also in the home countries. However, these studies have been restricted to an economic dimension: what is the economic contribution of immigrants to the domestic income? What has been the impact of the financial and economic remittances that emigrants transfer to their countries of origin? How can emigrants help their home countries to achieve a higher level of development?

Even when we are in presence of speeches advocating for the existence of immigrantcommunities, the arguments often fall into the economic rhetoric. How many times do we hear that is great having immigrants so they can do the less qualified jobs? (And how many times do we know that these people are actually highly qualified…). Or that the ‘brains’ or the businessmen are very welcome, because they can boost the domestic economy?
Unfortunately, European Union has not been giving emphasis enough to what is actually its own identity, or to what its own identity should actually be. Connecting to what we said in the very beginning – i.e. the evolution of the EU from a reunion of countries with an economic purpose to a project with core values such as democracy and human rights – this regional organization is perverting the image of those without whom there is no European Union: immigrants and diasporas.

The fear of the unknown resulting from the othering process and the idea of ‘Europe for Europeans’ supported by some more conservative EU countries are preventing European Union from having any legitimacy of holding the flags of tolerance, respect, multi and interculturalism, defence and promotion of human rights, social inclusion, democratic citizenship, etc., etc. It is a really interesting exercise analysing what non EU youth movements have to say about European Union immigration policies: besides stressing the obstacles in obtaining visas and how differently citizens are treated according to their country of origin, they cleverly and rightly point out that security depends more on increased development cooperation than on increased boarder control.

So, what do we have here? Just distraction or pure hypocrisy? Both, I would say. EU is ignoring what one of the most relevant countries in the international arena – United States – knows the best: soft power. Whatever the opinion we may have in relation to this world super power and how apprehensive we may feel about following its power strategies, the truth is the US presents on of the best examples on how people can follow and reproduce what comes from a single country (despite some injuries its image might have suffered as a result of the interventions in the Middle East).

Maybe because we are living a period where the ‘American Dream’ or the ‘American Way of Life’ is not that strong or appealing anymore − at least at a global level especially with the emergence of alternatives powers − Europe can find here its opportunity to evidence itself and spread its core values. And its window of opportunity will precisely be the immigrants and diasporas.

These communities, contrarily to what the mainstream thought tells us, transfer much more than economic remittances to their home countries. If acculturation took place, these people also transmit values, behaviours, understandings, cultural practises, political ideas, etc. when they call or email friends or relatives, when they come home definitely or just for holidays.

Here youth plays an extremely important role, being the link par excellence between all the different generations in its community, but also between the origin and the hosting country. Presenting a peculiar and almost intrinsic domain of new technologies, young people allow information exchange between those groups, eroding the distance (either geographical or temporal) and its internal borders that might emerge as time passes by.

Returning to our concept of de facto EU citizens, this acculturation process will be much more difficult whether people cannot have access to the set of rights and opportunities coming from holding a nationality of a EU country. If the inferiority feeling or even the perception that there are two EUs − one which includes who is economically valuable and another which excludes who is not − are somehow fed, it is highly expectable that the message to be passed through migrants and diasporas is one from an exclusive, economistic and elitist Europe.

We are not trying to promote some kind of anarchic idea where there should be no rules in what concerns nationality assignments or there should not be any kind of privileges to whom belongs to European Union. What we are trying to emphasise is rather the urgent need of addressing and taking into consideration citizens’ voices and look beyond the narrow vision of an immigrant as an economic asset. European Union is multi and interculturalism, is democracy, is sharing and being the difference – and that cannot be done without who comes from the outside.

What can still be done?

Since the last years, EU has been paying a lot of attention to young people, not only because they are the main slice of the current unemployment rate, but also for considering that youth engagement and participation are crucial to the healthy functioning of this institution.

Youngsters are generally more receptive to new ideas and can easily reach other generations. That assumption has been somehow exploited by programmes such as Youth in Action (current Erasmus +) where European Commission sponsors, for instance, opportunities of short and long term exchanges, international seminars and volunteering, study visits, always connected to a subject related to EU flags.

If, on one hand, these programmes are a useful and intelligent tool to avoid and prevent an expectable angry youth, considering the current economic and financial crisis, they are, on the other hand, an unquestionable investment in peace taking into account how prejudices and stereotypes can actually dissipate in these international environments.
However, the majority of these programmes are meant to EU young citizens. In this sense, opening vacancies for non EU citizens could work either as soft power strategy, either as way of bringing these voices into the European construction. Besides, alternative methods of participation and engagement for de facto EU citizens are urgently needed. The European question has to be brought to the local level, where people are and daily live their lives.
Interestingly, local actions are not funded anymore by the programmes mentioned above which is a sad step back in what concerns community involvement and engagement: it is somehow more comfortable to consider that local initiatives should be of local governments’ responsibility.

Finally, and despite apparently hurting EU state members sovereignty, it is absolutely vital an European education. European Union cannot be introduced only in the last years of mandatory school or in the universities: if we want to create Europeans, they have to grow with EU values and knowing what it is and what it does.

EU was ambitious in its content when it was created and, as it continued growing and developing, it became one of the most (if not the most) complex regional organisation. Complex organisations demand complex responses and a continuous search for alternatives to consolidate an identity that is in permanent construction. And EU has urgently to understand that this identity is constructed not only within its borders, but also outside of them.