POLITICAL MS: Citizens fight for freedom of movement in Europe after Brexit

As the Lords and MPs take it in turns to debate the details of formally notifying the other EU governments that the UK wants to leave the club (“triggering Article 50” in media-speak) not everyone is convinced of the wisdom of leaving these details to our elected and non-elected politicians in the Palace of Westminster. One group of citizens has put thoughts into action and a few weeks ago launched their campaign for a “European Free Movement Instrument” initiative. This campaign is asking the European Commission to consider issuing a form of travel document, known as a “laissez-passer” to citizens to allow them to travel freely across EU member states. Although the initiative does not explicitly mention Brexit, it is motivated by the loss of EU citizenship rights, including freedom of movement, that will occur once the UK leaves the EU.

It is worth taking a moment to look at the feature of EU politics, which makes this campaign possible. The Lisbon Treaty (which of course also brought us Article 50) introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative. Aimed at trying to make the EU more democratic by allowing people to directly influence EU politics, it gives citizens the right to invite the European Commission to initiate new European policies. Campaign organisers must collect one million statements of support, or signatures, from citizens across at least seven EU member states. If they are successful in collecting these signatures within twelve months, the European Commission is obliged to consider their idea with a view to putting forward policy proposals to the member state governments and members of the European Parliament who agree EU laws. Since the mechanism came into operation in 2012 there have been over forty campaigns launched on a range of topics including environmental protection and climate policy, animal welfare, social exclusion, cannabis regulation, female entrepreneurship, media pluralism and social welfare.

However, even in the era of ‘clicktivism’ the task for organisers is not easy and only three campaigns have been successful in gathering a million statements of support since 2012. The rules of the ECI concerning the eligibility to sign are more like an election than an online petition. As such, citizens who want to support the campaign must disclose their name, address, date of birth, nationality, and in many cases, their personal identification number. Also, as the rules for eligibility are set by national authorities and vary from one state to the next some citizens who are nationals of one state but resident in another may find that they can support the campaign in neither. The irony of this situation for a campaign on free movement is not lost on the organisers of the European Free Movement Instrument initiative.

Besides the challenges of collecting statements of support from European citizens, whether the initiative offers real hope for the retention of the EU citizenship right of free movement for European-minded Brits after Brexit is questionable. Legal experts have pointed out that the small print of the laissez-passer rules states that it applies only to EU officials and their family members, making the expansion of this right legally tricky. Undeterred, the organisers point out that they are happy for the Commission to consider other alternatives in achieving their preferred outcome, but also that whatever the results of the campaign, they hope it’ll prove to European governments how much people value their EU citizenship rights, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to hold on to them.

This post was written by Dr Elizabeth Monaghan

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