Time for something extraordinary

This is the text of an open letter to Cecelia Wikström, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Petitions, in follow-up to my presentation to the committee, re. petition 1142/2016. You can find a video of me reading the letter at https://youtu.be/XdtX_iiLFtg

“Dear Ms Wikström

Thank you for the opportunity to present my petition at the June 21st meeting of the Committee on Petitions. I would also like to thank the members of the committee who gave me and fellow petitioners such a positive and welcoming response, not forgetting Danuta Hübner and other members of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs who also attended.

I am sorry that you missed my presentation because I agreed to wait for the afternoon session but the bright side of this is that it gives me the chance to summarise some of my key points for you. I hope you don’t mind. I do appreciate that my petition remains open but nevertheless I would like to keep pushing it and hope that at the same time I can say something useful for the Committee’s work on Brexit and with regards to wider issues for European citizenship.

In a nutshell, what I would like to say is:

  1. The process for loss of European citizenship for citizens of a withdrawing state should be on the basis of consideration of fundamental rights, not a negotiation driven by state power. UK vs EU27 looks very much like the latter.
  2. Individuals should be involved in the process, which requires information to be communicated by the EU. Individuals should also understand how to appeal any injustice that arises.
  3. The “right of every person to be heard, before any individual measure which would affect her adversely is taken[1]”, suggests a legal basis for every citizen to be individually involved in the decision-making process.
  4. There is a social contract between the EU and its citizens. Natural justice requires that termination of that contract must involve negotiation between the Union and its citizens.
  5. A practical approach to involving people would be to hold public hearings across Europe, in line with the model established for enabling individuals’ right to be heard under the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  6. A programme of hearings would be beneficial for the whole of the Article 50 negotiation process, based on sharing evidence rather than political argument, identifying opportunities for a more collaborative and less adversarial approach and generating new solutions.

I really liked what you and Danuta Hübner had to say about the importance of listening to citizens in a process for which we have no specific guidance or precedent but I think what’s actually happening is that the European Parliament is relying on processes that were not designed for this situation.

Outside of last month’s meeting I had a moment to tell one of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs MEPs about my call for greater citizen participation and he said, “Well you’re participating now aren’t you?”. It was an unguarded moment and I’m sure if he had had more time to think he would have said something that didn’t sound quite so complacent. My experience of participation in the process is that it has been very slow, despite the urgency of the need, and expensive. It has been encouraging but has generated nothing that feels like genuine dialogue. At least 65 million people are directly affected by Brexit but fewer than 20 petitioners appeared in the room when the Petions Committee finally heard our concerns. It just isn’t possible to say that this represents the level of participation citizens need at this time.

In terms of Brexit’s precedent for how Europe communicates with its citizens over withdrawal of a member state and their loss of citizenship, my citizen’s perception is that we are almost completely reliant on statements made to the media, by MEPs who have a role in the Brexit negotiation. I think citizens have to consider that these statements must be partly rhetorical, designed to influence the negotiation as much as to inform us, so we can’t trust that they accurately state the Parliament’s intentions towards us. They certainly don’t give people any guidance on how they can engage with the process.

These are extraordinary times and I would like the European Parliament to take proportionately extraordinary measures. Bring the process to us.  Ask us for evidence of how Brexit will affect our lives. Promote dialogue. Listen. Tell us what you have heard. Take your learning into the negotiation process.  Do all this formally and for communication don’t make us rely on your statements to the media.  Stand up for our rights and our participation in what is, ultimately, our government, for us.

As I said in my presentation, this is a time when it’s easier and easier to share information with people, to give them an opportunity to have a say and to listen to their voices.

As chair of the Committee for Petitions I hope you will consider what more you can do to make this happen.  Having waited nine months for no real reply to my petition I don’t think business as usual is enough for the scale of the Brexit issue or for citizens’ right to be heard. We need you to try to reinforce citizens’ dialogue, and to make it stronger.  I would urge you to raise these issues with Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt, Danuta Hübner and anyone else with the necessary influence and responsibility.

Thank you again for welcoming me to Brussels and also for your obvious commitment to citizen participation.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Gutteridge
Petition 1142/2016

[1] Charter of Fundamental Rights, article 41 paragraph 2″


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