Citizenship of the European Union


Citizenship without a State


Although the EU is not a state, it boasts a citizenship like many others, established more than 20 years ago by the Treaty of Maastricht. This citizenship allows the Union to distinguish between ‘European citizens’ and foreigners, termed ‘third-country nationals’ in contemporary Eurospeak. By law, every national of each of the EU’s (still) 28 Member States is a citizen of the Union.

EU citizens enjoy an array of crucially important rights, including residence, work and non-discrimination in the territory of all the members of the Union, as well as some political rights, including participation in European Parliament elections and municipal elections in any of the Member States where they chose to reside. The only exception from the free movement of workers within the EU territory is related to the transitional period applied to Croats by five EU Member States (Austria, Malta, Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK). EU Member States are allowed under EU law to apply restrictions to workers from new Member States for a maximum period of seven years, which started ticking in the case of Croatia on 1 July 2013. Croatia applies reciprocal measures and citizens from the above five EU Member States cannot freely settle in the newest Member State yet.


Effects beyond the European Union


EU citizens have same freedom of movement rights in other EEA countries  ̶  primarily in Iceland and Norway (while there is a cap on the number of people given residency a year in Liechtenstein), as well as in Switzerland and Georgia. The only exception from the free movement of workers rule applied by Switzerland concerns Croats who need a valid work permit before starting their employment in the country. While Switzerland reintroduced quotas for Bulgarian and Romanian workers in 2017 this decision does not affect their short term (up to 12 months) residence and work permits. Applying a very liberal approach to citizens of nearly 100 states Georgia is open to all EU citizens who wish to settle in the country up to one year.

As the biggest economy in the world, boasting very high levels of Human Development, the EU can legitimately be expected to be home to the best nationalities in the world – and it is. EU citizenship has steadily occupied one of the leading places among the nationalities of Very High Quality in the Quality of Nationality Index (QNI) ranking, consistently placed right alongside US citizenship and above those of Australia, Canada and Japan. Only citizenships of the European Economic Area – countries not included in the EU but enjoying full access to the EU territory for settlement and work without any prior authorizations – score higher than the US and EU citizenships. Indeed, were the individual EU nationalities excluded from the QNI (since these are component parts of EU citizenship, just as the citizenships of, say, Utah and Vermont are parts of the normative package of US citizenship[1]), EU citizenship would then end up in the top 10 of the world, right below Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein and the US, steadily occupying the sixth place in the world.


Mutual Consular Support


Europeans, except Croats, travel on standardized EU-model burgundy-colored passports, which display all the essential information in the 24 official languages of the EU and contain an inscription ‘The European Union’ in the respective language right above the name of the Union Member State that issued the passport.

Unlike other international organizations around the world which mandate their members to issue passports which look similar, such as CARICOM, the EU ones are actually a sign of a robust legal status hiding behind the burgundy design. While the internal EU rights of the holders of such passports are very far-reaching, as mentioned above, the status of EU citizenship is also of crucial significance externally. Of importance here is not only the right that EU citizens enjoy within the EU, but also outside the EU, where citizens have the right to receive protection and services from the consulates of any EU Member State in countries where their own Union Member State of nationality is not represented. For instance, if a Maltese national loses a passport in Gabon, the UK consulate will issue a replacement document to enable return to the EU. It goes without saying that this right is of huge importance, in particular, for EU citizens coming from the small Member States, which cannot boast large networks of diplomatic and consular offices worldwide. The EU citizenship right to receive protection abroad will thus be of much greater importance for a Maltese or Lithuanian EU national, than for a German or a Pole.

The importance of the status goes much further. The majority of EU Member States agreed that the Union, not the individual states, will be responsible for the visa regime and visa-free arrangements applicable to foreigners coming to the EU. This has far-reaching implications: the Union is absolutely prohibited by its own law from tolerating any discrimination between its own citizens travelling on documents issued by different Member States – in the context of visa-free entry, to all the countries in the world enjoying visa-free access to Europe.

The law is crystal clear: any country whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel to the EU which treats EU passports issued by different Member States differently will see the visa-free regime granted to it revoked. In other words, if Canada allows Germans in visa-free but asks a Czech or a Romanian to apply for a visa, the EU is obliged by its own law to introduce visas for all Canadians travelling anywhere in the EU, in an effort to deal with such discrimination. Only one country in the world refused to cooperate with the EU on this point: the US, while Canada and Australia – to provide just two examples – changed their visa regimes to preserve visa-free access to the EU for their nationals. The dispute with the US, which currently discriminates against EU passports issued by Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, not allowing the holders of these documents to enter the US territory on ESTA, is ongoing. The worst case scenario here, as the European Parliament concluded in early 2017, is the introduction of entry visas for US citizens for travel to any EU Member States – a move which will undoubtedly affect the quality of both EU and US citizenships sharply to their detriment.


Quality of EU citizenship


All in all, the QNI makes it absolutely clear that the quality of EU and US nationalities has consistently remained at a relatively similar, very high level. Importantly, while being attached to extremely important economies, both nationalities enjoy a lot of preferential treatment around the world through asymmetrical travel access for short-term tourist and business travel: just like the Americans, Europeans are not required to obtain visas in advance to visit the vast majority of the countries in the world, even if some discrepancies can be found here between the two nationalities: US citizens need visas to travel to Iran and Brazil, for instance, while these destinations are visa-free for Europeans. Where the EU and US are similar is that many countries around the world whose own citizens cannot visit the US or the Schengen Area of the EU without a visa, would not apply reciprocity to EU and US citizens.

The last issue to mention in the context of EU citizenship are the implications of its loss for the state withdrawing from the Union. ‘Hard Brexit’ will land the UK with a nationality which does not bestow settlement and work rights in leading EU Member States, in terms of HDI and Economic Strength, thus overwhelmingly impairing the quality of UK nationality. Research shows that such an impaired UK nationality – even if we presume no economic loss to the UK as a result of leaving the EU and thus uniquely focus on the external rather than internal components of nationality quality – will be in a free fall in terms of its quality, losing its value very sharply, and by far exceeding the losses experienced by the countries in the midst of bitter political and armed conflicts, as well as divided societies, whose nationalities are at the forefront of failing to perform, such as the Syrian, Libyan and Ukrainian nationalities.

This is a sobering facts-based warning for Ms. May, which is no doubt known to the populists in power in the UK very well. The UK is about to establish a world record in terms of profoundly undermining the quality of its nationality without going through any violent conflict, falling (in the QNI) from the elite group of Extremely High Quality nationalities to the High Quality group, changing its neighbors in the ranking from the likes of Switzerland and Germany to the likes of China and the Russian Federation. The moral is simple: EU citizenship is an extremely valuable resource and getting rid of it – crippling citizens’ horizon of opportunities – should not be taken lightly.


Author: Prof Dr Dimitry Kochenov, Faculty of Law, University of Groningen, The Netherlands


[1] The score of the citizenship of the EU has been updated significantly in this edition, to ensure that this citizenship does not benefit at all from the intra-EU travel and settlement rights, thus putting it on par with any other federation in the world.

Pin It on Pinterest

Skip to content