Citizens are at the heart of the European project. The EU is not for politicians, it is for people. This principle is what guides our work here in the European Commission. The Lisbon Treaty marks a real watershed in highlighting the importance of citizens: It underscores their vital role in advancing the European project. It has given them new opportunities to address the European institutions. And it challenges the EU institutions to create a real Citizens’ Europe.
The turbulences over the past few years have reaffirmed the need for such a strong focus on citizens. More and more decisions that have a direct impact on people's lives are being taken at European level. Hence, institutions and decision-making processes need to become more democratic and transparent.
By creating the Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship portfolio in the Commission, President José Manuel Barroso entrusted me to make EU proposals meaningful to citizens. I am determined to strengthen citizens’ rights and to remove the remaining obstacles preventing them from enjoying these rights.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Union citizenship under the Maastricht Treaty, the year 2013 has been designated the European Year of Citizens. The aim is to give Europeans the opportunity to learn about their rights and the opportunities open to them thanks to EU citizenship.
The Commission also wants to hear the citizens' views - regarding everyday issues as well as on which direction Europe should move in and how they think it should be run in the future. To this end, the Commission is organising Citizens' Dialogues across the entire European Union. At these events, which are taking place in all Member States, you can tell Commissioners directly what you think and ask questions, share your views or wishes. The aim of these Dialogues is to boost the creation of a true European public space which President Barroso called for in his State of the Union Speech of September 2012. European issues have to be discussed from a European point of view, as they cannot be solved with purely national actions.
Commissioners usually hold Citizens Dialogues together with Members of the European Parliament as well as national and local politicians. Citizens' contributions will feed into a Communication on the Future of Europe which the Commission will present in 2014. I have already outlined my vision for the future of the Union - that of a United States of Europe: a strong political union with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a "Senate" of Member States. If you want to discuss this or other issues with other Commissioners or myself, make sure you check the schedule and see if we will be coming to your town.
The right to free movement is one of the main pillars and greatest achievements of the EU. I have been working to ensure that EU law on freedom of movement is correctly implemented by pursuing a rigorous infringement policy with regards to the EU free movement rules.
The Commission is working to further reinforce the right to free movement by tearing down barriers that still prevent citizens from moving across and beyond the European Union: with its first ever EU Citizenship Report (in 2010) the Commission proposed, and delivered, 25 concrete actions to make life simpler for EU citizens – from strengthening the rights of crime victims, cutting red tape for people registering a car in another EU country, to banning extra credit card charges and pre-ticked boxes for online shoppers.
And there is more: I have used the European Year of Citizens to address the barriers which still prevent Europeans from enjoying their rights as EU citizens. After an extensive public consultation to which nearly 12,000 citizens replied, I presented the second EU Citizenship Report which contains 12 new actions to boost citizens' rights. For example, the Commission wants to ensure that citizens can receive unemployment benefits for longer than the mandatory three months when they search for a job in another member state. Other actions include the support for the development of a mutually recognised EU disability card which would ensure equal access across member states to certain specific benefits and a revision of the European Small Claims Procedure to make it easier for consumers to settle disputes concerning purchases made in another EU country.
The actions of the European Year of Citizens and the Citizens' Dialogues will also serve to prepare the European elections that will take place in May 2014. This is Europe's democratic moment. Given that the EU is at a crossroads, it is more important than ever that Europeans use this opportunity to make their voice heard. These elections will play a crucial role in determining the future course of Europe. To increase participation, the Commission has adopted a Recommendation calling, among others, for the political parties to nominate a candidate for the post of President of the European Commission.
Every citizen of an EU country is automatically a Union citizen with EU citizenship rights. It is very encouraging to see that two thirds of citizens feel European. However, only one third knows what their rights as EU citizens are. That is what the European Commission wants to improve.
Citizens’ rights are clearly spelled out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights . In addition, the Lisbon Treaty introduces a set of provisions and instruments to reinforce European Citizenship by strengthening in particular the role of the Union in the fields of Justice and Fundamental Rights.
The Treaty of Lisbon foresees a set of basic rights, namely:
- The right to move and reside freely within the territory of the member states – subject to certain conditions laid down in the Treaties.
- The right to vote and to stand as candidate in elections to the European Parliament and municipal elections in the member state of residence.
- The right to receive diplomatic and consular protection, in case a citizen is in the territory of a third country where his / her own member state is not represented by a consular post or a diplomatic mission.
- The right to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman and to address institutions and advisory bodies of the EU and receive a reply.
- The citizens' initiative makes it possible for citizens to invite the European Commission to submit appropriate proposals on issues falling within its competence and where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required.
Non-discrimination is also a basic founding value of the European Union. European legislation prohibits discrimination on grounds of nationality, sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. This is a core right upon which citizenship is built.