A bit of history
Remember 1 November 1993? Not really? Well, on that day, the citizens of all Member States achieved a new legal status as ‘citizens of the European Union’. The (economic) ‘European Community’ was also replaced by the (political) ‘European Union’. This was — and remains — a worldwide and historic first; no other citizen across the globe enjoys transnational rights, enabling them to participate actively in the shaping of legislation across nation states.
The formal introduction of EU citizenship was preceded by a gradual introduction of rights and obligations for the citizens of Member States, including freedom of movement (since 1957) and direct voting rights in European Parliament elections (since 1979).
Not yet an EU citizen?
There is only one way you can become a citizen of the European Union. You need to be or become an eligible citizen of one of the (currently) 28 Member States. In other words, there is no way to obtain this status without being a citizen of one of the Member States. This means that EU citizenship complements local, regional and national citizenship — but never replaces it. However, national citizenship legislation across the EU is very varied. It includes voting ages (in Austria, this is set at 16 instead of 18), limitations on dual citizenship (in some Member States this is linked to origin) and even multiple options (Danish citizens living in the Faroe Islands can choose to have EU citizenship).
EU citizens have four main political rights and freedoms:
- to move, reside and work freely within the EU territory;
- to receive protection from the diplomatic authorities of any Member State when outside the EU;
- to vote and stand for election at local and EU level in any Member State;
- to participate in the EU legislative process, for example by petitioning the European Parliament; and organising/supporting a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).
Before you act, enquire about your rights and duties
You may already know that the European Union is a rather complex legal and political system. What is important, however, is that you have the right to know exactly what is going on. You can ask for and receive information about basically everything happening within the Union. You also have the legal right of ‘access to documents’ of all EU institutions. These rights are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 42) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 15).
The Europe Direct service will answer your questions about the EU – in your own language. You should get an initial answer within three working days, or alternatively you can use the instant chat service. You can also call Europe Direct freephone from anywhere in the EU: 00 800 6 7 8 9 10 11 (weekdays 09:00-18:00 CET).Find out more! Read more about other available tools in the Participation toolkit section.
You have many channels enabling you to comment on EU policies and proposals
As the rules and laws of the European Union have a great impact on our daily lives, it is important to know that the public decision-making process in the EU is legally required to be open and responsive. For this reason, the EU institutions are obliged to ‘maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue’ (Article 11(2) of the Lisbon Treaty) and to ‘carry out broad consultations with parties concerned in order to ensure that the Union’s actions are coherent and transparent’ (Article 11(3) of the Lisbon Treaty).
The Public consultations service is an official ‘single access point’ to ongoing consultations and public discussions relating to European policymaking processes. When registering, you can even sign up for email notifications and receive invitations to participate in formal consultation processes.
Moreover, in 2015 the European Commission proposed a Better Regulation Agenda to design and evaluate EU policies and laws transparently, including new public consultations on the online platform where initiatives can be tracked and commented upon. It covers all policy areas and aims at producing targeted regulation. Read more about the Better Regulation Agenda.
You can join a political party or organise your own citizens’ initiative
The European Union is a modern representative democracy, in which the public exerts an influence both indirectly (via the European Parliament) and directly (through participation). The fundamental charters, treaties and laws of the EU comply with Article 21 of the Universal Charter of Human Rights, which stipulates that ‘everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country …’, and, for the first time in world history, bring this principle to the transnational level.
In other words: you have the right and are very welcome to participate actively in the EU policymaking process, for example by joining/participating in a political party represented in the European Parliament or by petitioning the EP. The most powerful tool for participatory democracy in the EU is (currently) the European Citizens’ Initiative which allows you to set the agenda of the European Union!Find out more! Read more about other available tools in the Participation toolkit section.
My place: municipal level
Your home town is probably the most important place when it comes to active citizenship and participatory democracy.
While your municipality may be the lowest level of state authority, it is where important issues such as waste management, local infrastructure, or sometimes even primary education and social welfare services are governed. Moreover, the municipal level is closely intertwined with legislative bodies at the national and European levels and it also plays a key role in implementing various rules and laws.
There are almost 90 000 local democracies across the European Union, many of them responsible for a huge share of overall tax collection and applying various kinds of participatory rights to their own citizens, including indirect channels (via political parties and local parliaments) and direct channels (by means of initiatives and referendums).Find out more! Curious to know more about what, how and when you can best make an impact? Contact an information officer in your local administration.
My region: provincial level
Many provinces and regions enjoy far-reaching powers and even those which do not, have the advantage of being your closest administrative contact point.
In between your municipality and your national government, you have (in 25 out of 28 Member States) one or more levels of regional government structures. Currently, there are 1636 such regional democracies across the EU. In some federated Member States the provinces enjoy considerable sovereignty, including constitutions of their own, far-reaching legislative powers and comprehensive tax incomes, while in other EU Member States, provinces/regions mainly fulfil (unelected) administrative roles.
Depending on the status of your province/region, you may enjoy more or less extensive rights to political participation including indirect channels (via political parties and local parliaments) and direct channels (by means of initiatives and referendums).Find out more! For more information, check with the Committee of the Regions, the European Union’s Assembly of Regional and Local Representatives.
My country: national level
The Member States are the single most important level of governance within the European Union in terms of political and legal powers and control of public funds.
For this reason, your citizenship in one (or sometimes several) Member State(s) is crucial to your ability to make your voice heard and have an impact on the public decision-making process.
The availability of participatory political rights at the national level varies considerably between the Member States. All countries have electoral rights including universal suffrage and the right to stand as a candidate in a national election. Furthermore, about two thirds of the countries also allow citizens to make their own proposals through petitions and initiatives and, in a smaller number of countries, to have a say on substantive issues through the referendum process.Find out more! For an overview and details on participatory opportunities at the national level, visit the Direct Democracy Navigator or check with the information services of your national parliament.
My Europe: transnational level
The European level offers a multitude of ways to act: from voting to representing.
The European Union is the world’s first transnational democracy. As an EU citizen, you enjoy ample opportunities to make your voice heard, by voting and/or standing as a candidate for the European Parliament or by having a more direct say through the petition process (directed to the Parliament) and the initiative process (directed to the Commission). And that’s not all!
As an EU citizen, you can run for the European Parliament (next election in May 2019), submit a complaint to the European Ombudsman, get assistance with your problem, make your voice heard publicly, petition the European Parliament or launch a European Citizens’ Initiative.