• Citizenship: A Fundamental Issue for Democracy

  • By Marie-Christine Vergiat | 10 May 11 | Posted under: Democracy
  • When I was elected to the European Parliament in June, 2009, I wanted to continue to fight as I always have for human rights and citizenship, which are not separate issues, as well as for popular education, in the widest sense of the term, and for a social economy. For me, all these battles originate in the same place and derive from the same values.

    I also wanted to experience and contribute to a more deliberative democracy, more suited to building bridges between representative democracy and participatiory democracy, a term that is somewhat tarnished today. It is the idea of being able to fulfil this European mandate, of being accountable and of trying to reconcile the citizenry with the European concept by showing them that it is possible to take action in Europe to move toward another Europe, a Europe that is not just careful to look after economic interests or even financial interests but that is preoccupied with the well-being of the men and women who live within its borders. For all these reasons, the question of citizenship seems to me to take priority, and that is why I have wanted it to be a topic for discussion. It is very difficult to create lively debate on European issues, even though 50 to 80% of the texts that apply to the member states are influenced by European legislation in one way or another, and even though the European Parliament is gaining growing influence over decisions taken at European level, many of which must in future be adopted in a process of co-decision with the European Parliament. Constructing European citizenship is, therefore, more and more of an essential challenge.

    I have chosen to be active in the Front de Gauche in France because it aims to build an alternative on the left and to create another model for development that rests on four pillars:

    • the economy,
    • society,
    • the environment, and
    • democracy.

    These four pillars should be considered as a whole, after closely examining the meaning of each of these words. It is essential to ask: What is the economy? Isn’t it time we knew what it’s good for? Why do we always have a tendency, even among ourselves, to act as if there were only one economic model, only one type of enterprise?

    To this end, the European Parliament currently is fighting for the recognition of European statutes for all the components of the social economy: mutual companies, associations and foundations. (Cooperatives already benefit from a European statute.)

    In the context of the debate on citizenship, the democracy pillar is the one we must tackle first. The democratic model must be restructured, but this restructuring today necessarily means the reform of institutions.

    Because restructuring democracy means, first and foremost, restoring citizens – those who actively participate in the affairs of the city – to their rightful place:

    1) First of all, we should stop talking about active citizenship. Citizenship is the other side of the coin.

    For us in France, citizenship is an acquired right under the French Revolution – even if we had to wait until 1848 to get rid of the property qualification so that the right to vote ceased to depend on wealth and began to become universal, and, until 1945 for French women finally to have the right to vote. But in France, this citizenship still is limited since foreigners do not have the right to vote, even in local elections.

    2) Citizenship does not depend on politics, much less on the simple fact of placing a vote in a ballot box. There are a hundred and one ways to act as a citizen.

    It is not a question of diminishing the role of political parties. They are essential to democratic life and should even – must, even – be major contributors to the stimulating of political debate. It is a question of reviving the will of citizens to participate in politics, to influence politics and, even, to take a leading role in politics.

    During the European political campaign I often heard: “What good does it do to go and vote? Why vote when every party has the same policy and our daily life just continues to get worse?”

    It could be that with everything that is happening in the Arab countries today a new wind is blowing, thanks to the men and women who had, and still have the courage to stand up to their dictators, to risk their lives to regain their right to freedom and democracy.

    And it’s because the Front de Gauche embodies this concept that I belong there. In France, today, we at least in the Front de Gauche are highly conscious of the fact that, beyond political parties, unions and associations play a key role in the renaissance of democracy.

    We also see very clearly that, because all the traditional institutions are in crisis, more and more of our fellow citizens are choosing to take more useful and more targeted action. In this way, the action of Education without Frontiers (RESF) shifted the focus on the issue of immigration. Men and women, parents and teachers, mobilised in support of families without papers to prevent their expulsion and demand that their situations be sorted out. It is no doubt thanks to this movement that undocumented workers have decided to come out into the open and have decided to fight for their rights. These actions of the citizenry have made things happen, and today a majority of French men and women declare that they are in favour, not only of the regularisation of undocumented children and their families, but also of all those undocumented immigrants who have a job.

    Consider also the fantastic movement that we have just seen over the issue of retirement; and, even if we lost the legislative war, we have won the battle of ideas, because contrary to what they may have been thinking earlier this year, today 80% of French people think that further reform is possible.

    So, citizenship is also social.

    I would add that citizenship also must be economic and is, it seems to me, one of the differences that a social economy should be able to make, along with the fact that economic citizenship also means that democracy does not stop at the company gate and that workers should be considered integral participants in the business of the enterprise rather than just another form of capital.

    3) Citizenship is not a question of nationality, and, in this regard, the definition of European citizenship, such as exists today, is a real problem, since all citizens of each member state are European citizens.

    In the European Parliament, we currently are working on the European Citizenship Initiative. And, even if we are not under any illusions in my parliamentary group, the European United Left-Nordic Green Left, as to the results of this European referendum, we have fought for its maximum enlargement, without restriction to those who have the right to vote. This could mean, notably, that European citizenship would be open to the young at of the age of 16, as well as to all those who reside in a European member state.

    This would seem to make sense because some member states already give foreign residents the right to vote in local elections. France will be one of the last countries to do so, as it was when it came to giving women the right to vote. The European Association for the Defense of Human Rights (AEDH) plans to launch a campaign to support the right of foreign residents to vote in local elections, and we can take some credit for this. Above and beyond this, there is the issue of harmonisation of the requirements for citizenship in all Member States. At the moment, since it refers back to nationals of each member state, European citizenship must cover a wide variety of situations.

    4) Finally, citizenship cannot be decreed; it must be demonstrated. And, in this regard, the number of European texts that have proliferated on the issue of European citizenship is appalling, particularly after record rates of abstention in the last European elections. A single quote taken from one of the latest European Commission communications on the subject reveals the extent of the damage: “European citizens must be made aware of their citizenship”. It is a reductive vision of the problem, reinforced by the fact that it is restricted solely to citizens of European nations while the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union says exactly the opposite. It is very important to challenge this contradiction.

    We are going to work on everything that we have discussed this evening, on everything that you have shared with me and everything for which I thank you again.

    The European Charter reflects a universal conception of fundamental rights, which should apply to every single person who lives within the European Union.

    Based on these questions, there is a great deal of work to do and a lot to discuss. But it is essential for all of us who believe in democracy and want to participate in the creation of a different society to take part in the process.

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