Into the elephant’s den

My big appointment for Wednesday 21st June: Brussels, the European Parliament. Two days after the scheduled beginning of Brexit negotiation talks I will be joining petitioners from across the continent to present our treasured demands to the EU’s Petitions Committee of MEPs tasked with ensuring citizens can communicate with the Parliament.  They have chosen this week of all weeks to discuss 28 different Brexit petitions submitted to them in the last year.

The petitions reflect the enormous hullabaloo generated by the UK’s referendum decision and the complexity of the issues for Europe.  Among them my petition, drafted on a cold October night, supported by just 160 people who kindly completed the seven online steps required to sign up.  Perhaps the other 510 million or so Europeans aren’t as excited as me by how Brexit affects the fundamental principles of EU citizenship and Europe’s emerging social contract.

In some ways we in the room will be a tidy metaphor for Brexit. On the one hand, apparent rationality, represented by MEPs and their policy advisors; on the other, passionate opinion from citizens who have been desperate, enthusiastic or misguided enough to make the trip.  But I suspect the metaphor fails when you consider how power works differently in the two situations.  At the decision making level, Brexit will be a struggle of power between states driven by political realities but on Wednesday there will be a different sort of muscle in the room: contemporary European liberal democracy.

What the European Union has struggled to do in terms of active citizen engagement with MEPs and elections it counters with the scope and scale of opportunities for citizens’ direct participation.  The suprastate has developed an ambitious range of citizen engagement opportunities. As well as lobbying to, voting for or even being an MEP, we can submit official petitions that are guaranteed to be considered, demand a formal hearing if EU actions harm us personally, launch a citizens’ initiative to call for legislation, and complain to the European Ombudsman about maladministration.  And all routes to participation are underpinned by fundamental rights and the European Court of Justice. When petitioners and Committee meet the debate will be shaped by this democratic framework and the needs of ordinary citizens.

But there will be elephant in the room on Wednesday, a small but significant flaw in Europe’s constitution. Political leaders snared the elephant when they signed the Treaty of Lisbon.  The elephant is a gap in the famous article 50, which describes procedure for dealing with a member state leaving the European Union.  The gap is a lack of provision in the article for termination of EU citizenship by nationals of the withdrawing state.  The article has an outline of requirements for negotiation between withdrawing state and EU, but nothing about negotiation of citizenship. Hence a room full of petitioners on Wednesday, most of them doing their best to represent the interests of fellow citizens who face upheaval because the Treaty was drafted with state politics in mind, not the politics of real people whose freedoms and security could be squished by a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit .

Am I the only one who perceives – or thinks he perceives – the significance of Article 50’s silence on citizenship? My petition is an attempt to describe this significance: the risks from allowing the Brexit inter-state negotiation to set precedents for the legal status of citizenship, the need for clarity so citizens can ensure their rights are upheld and can appeal against injustice, the value of a more positive, inclusive process for citizen participation, the potential breach to Europe’s nascent social contract that’s emerged through a combination of policy and practice, the harm from giving up on international citizenship without looking at the  philosophical implications.  The Committee has 57 petitions to get through, half of them on Brexit, most of those about the pressing concerns of Brits living on the continent or Europeans living in Britain.  The MEPs hearing our petitions will have a duty to focus on other petitioners more tangible concerns and I am kind of embarrassed to be there, an ordinary person whose life and livelihood are probably only moderately dependent on the EU, speaking to points  of principle.  Trouble is I’ve been asking people about the legality of loss of citizenship since October, including asking the Petitions Committee and Commissioner of Justice, and so far no answer. I’ve even had my local UKIP MEP say it’s a legitimate question, so I have to keep asking, don’t I?


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