Building bridges and reaching out so we can all have our say on Europe

Ahead of the London Citizens’ Dialogue event the European Commission’s Viviane Reding answers three of the big questions EU citizens are asking

Only around one in three people in the UK vote in European Parliamentary elections and many of them do not understand their rights as EU citizens. Why is it important to vote?

A lot has happened, particularly in the last few years in the context of the economic crisis, to further European integration, to unite a continent of 507 million citizens in a union where people have real tangible and enforceable rights and where taxpayers don’t pay for bankers’ mistakes.

We have been doing a lot of crisis management but now it is time people had their say about where we go from here. That is what these elections are about — electing members of the European Parliament who will set the course of the EUin the years to come.

Voters can decide whether Europe should take a more social or a more market-liberal direction; whether the future majority in the European Parliament will favour opening Europe’s borders to immigration or closing them; whether they will defend the free movement rights of all EUcitizens or support more restrictions; how strong quotas for women in company boardrooms should be; and how tough we will be with the US in trade talks and when it comes to data protection or genetically modified food or plants.

It’s 20 years since European citizenship became a reality. How have these past two decades of citizens’ rights benefited individuals here in the UK and across Europe?

Being a European citizen means you benefit from all the big things: a continent at peace, the world’s biggest economy, clean water — things we often take for granted. But it also means all the small, everyday things that make a real and daily difference.

I would lay bets that European citizenship has altered each and every one of your lives in some way or another, big or small, whether you are aware of it or not. When you cross a border and don’t have to mortgage your house to pay your mobile phone roaming bill — that’s because of the EU. When you a buy a new laptop, TV, or other item from your local high street store and are automatically given a two-year warranty — that’s because of the EU. When you or your child is given the opportunity to study abroad with your fees paid — that’s because of the EU.

But people are not always aware of these rights or the fact that they are derived from the EU.

The Citizens’ Dialogue events are a way to influence the future of Europe. Where do you see European citizenship in 20 years time?

Citizenship of the union gives all citizens the same rights regardless of their nationality. This comes in addition to our national and cultural identities — it’s an added bonus that does not replace but complements. It means that you can cross borders in the EUand be confident you will be able to benefit from the same rights you get back home.

This is notably what I have been doing in the field of justice: building bridges between the different national systems so that, for example, if you fall victim to a crime abroad you will be treated with the same standard of care and assistance as you would at home. And we are breaking down barriers to exercising your rights abroad — like making sure you can vote in the European and local elections wherever you live in the EU.

In 20 years I would hope people will be fully acquainted with their rights as European citizens and that they will not come up against any barriers to exercising those rights when travelling from one member state to another.

The word on the street … so what do the voters think?

Samir El-Alami, 27

Marketer

“I’m British, I’m Moroccan and I like being part of Europe. The ease of crossing borders means you can go anywhere really easily, so I could go live in France, wherever, with no hassle. Being an MEP seems to be the easiest job in the world because nobody pays any attention to them. I am apathetic about voting in European elections but that is because of Britain’s anti-Europe stance.”

Andrew Zilouf, 33

Restaurateur

“I do not normally vote in the European elections but I feel strongly about this forthcoming one because it seems there is a mood in Britain to get out of Europe and I think it would be a big shame if we did. I am very pro-European because I believe in freedom of movement. My own family were immigrants in the 1950s from Baghdad, so it would be unfair of me not to support other immigrants and from an economic perspective I think it has been very good for the country. “

Ben Shockley, 47

Actor

“I feel British and do not feel European at all. Decisions are made there that affect us all so, although I have never voted before in the European elections, I will vote this time — although I am not sure who I will vote for — as the issue of Europe seems to be coming to a head and every vote counts.”

James Earl, 58

Relationship counsellor

“I always vote in European elections because I like the idea of a European Parliament and feel more European than British.

Hilary Lombard, 50

Charity executive

“I should know who my MEP is but I don’t. I feel British first and foremost and, although there are aspects of being in the European Union I really like, there seem to be some ridiculous laws I do not agree with. Sometimes it seems that even though Britain is the most dissatisfied member state we are the only people responding to European laws. I do not think I know enough about the implications of staying in or leaving but it does appear to be a good thing to be in an economic partnership with our neighbours — otherwise we could end up really isolated.”

Tom Owen, 28

Mature student

“I’ve never voted in European elections because I find the European Union very distant and I disapprove of the impact their decisions have on us. I very much consider myself British and a Eurosceptic. If there was a referendum to come out I would begrudgingly vote to continue to stay in Europe but I wish Britain was still a more autonomous nation. ”

Len Hughes, 70

Retired teacher

“I feel British and European and, as a gay man, I feel that gay rights are best safeguarded within the EU. I will definitely be voting in May as your vote is a tool you should use. I am resigned to the fact there is great apathy in Britain because what debate there is about our membership of the union tends to be very negative. On immigration, I do it has benefited us as a country overall, but we are a small nation and we do appear to be reaching some sort of saturation point.”

Laura Muntus, 24

Graduate intern

“I feel protected by EU laws and I like the fact we have a European governing body. If Britain ever voted to come out I think it could jeopardise my rights as an employee and any future maternity rights. Also I have worked in a supermarket and I think this country can only survive with immigration.”

Join the debate on citizens’ rights by taking our reader survey on Europe HERE.

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