Looking across the English Channel from mainland Europe, it is clear David Cameron’s decision to impose a binary choice on the British people, in the form of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, has divided the UK. The overwhelming emotion to the result of the referendum in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe is sadness. The European Union is far from perfect, but for many of us it is the world’s greatest peace project. A peace bought about by in part by the sacrifice of many British citizens during the Second World War.
Contrary to reports in some parts of the British media, I do not have the sense that European politicians will not now seek “revenge” on the UK for wanting to leave us. At the same time, given the current make-up of the British Government, we must recognise it is unlikely that the UK will obtain a better deal as a former member than existing EU members have.
Brexit may mean Brexit, but what does this mean in practice for the millions of UK citizens living in continental Europe, or the millions of EU citizens living, studying or working in Britain? Among the powerful emotions provoked by the referendum – anger, regret and denial – was a sense of bereavement. Many British people consider themselves European and value their European citizenship, which struck a chord with me.
It is for this reason that I drafted an amendment to a draft report by the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, on possible changes to “the current institutional set-up” of the European Union. The idea is simply to guarantee those who want it some of the same rights they had as full EU citizens, including the right of residence in the EU, and to be able to vote in European elections and be represented by an MEP. Since this idea hit the headlines, I have been taken aback by the level of support that I have received for the proposal. Thousands of people from Britain have in touch with me to ask what they can do to make this a reality.
Currently, EU treaties specify that European citizenship derives directly from the national citizenship of its member states. However, it also specifies that citizenship of the Union is additional to and does not replace national citizenship. Creating an individual and voluntary citizenship to the Union would thus require treaty change, not in the least to specify its rights and duties, but it would not infringe upon national citizenship.
An associate membership could provide all the rights of full European citizenship, for example the right to freedom of movement, access to healthcare in the EU and the right to reside in EU member states. Following the reciprocal principle of “no taxation without representation”, these associate citizens would pay some form of annual membership fee directly into the EU budget. In return, EU associate citizens would be able to stand and vote in European elections via trans-national European lists, which we hope will replace the vacant seats of the 73 British MEPs who will be departing in 2019.
I have no doubt it would have been better for the UK to stay with us in the European Union. But if Brexit means Brexit, then I see no reason why the EU should not, in principle, offer an individual EU associate citizenship to UK citizens who wish to maintain their European identity.
Charles Goerens is an MEP for the Democratic Party of Luxembourg at the European Parliament
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