The citizens of the Union and their rights

European citizenship is enshrined in the Treaties (Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and Article 9 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)). It is an essential factor in the formation of a European identity. European citizenship exists as a complement to citizenship of a Member State. The main difference between the two is that the rights that citizens enjoy as a result of European citizenship are not matched with duties.

Legal basis

Articles 9 to 12 TEU and 18 to 25 TFEU.


Inspired by the freedom of movement for persons envisaged in the Treaties, the introduction of a European form of citizenship with precisely defined rights and duties was considered as long ago as the 1960s. Following preparatory work which began in the mid-1970s, the Treaty on European Union, adopted in Maastricht in 1992, made it an objective for the Union ‘to strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of the nationals of its Member States through the introduction of a citizenship of the Union’. A new part of the EC Treaty (ex Articles 17 to 22) was devoted to this citizenship.

Like national citizenship, EU citizenship refers to a relationship between the citizen and the European Union which is defined by rights, duties and political participation. This is intended to bridge the gap between the increasing impact that EU action is having on EU citizens, and the fact that the enjoyment of rights, the fulfilment of duties and participation in democratic processes are almost exclusively national matters. The aim is to increase people’s sense of identification with the EU and to foster European public opinion, a European political consciousness and a sense of European identity.

Moreover, there is to be stronger protection of the rights and interests of Member States’ nationals/EU citizens in the Union’s relations with the wider world (Article 3 TEU).


a.Definition of EU citizenship

Under Article 9 TEU and Article 20 TFEU, every person holding the nationality of a Member State is a citizen of the Union. Nationality is defined according to the national laws of that State. Citizenship of the Union is complementary to, but does not replace, national citizenship. EU citizenship comprises a number of rights and duties in addition to those stemming from citizenship of a Member State.

b.Substance of citizenship (Article 20 TFEU)

For all EU citizens, citizenship implies:

  • the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States (Article 21 TFEU) (2.1.3);
  • the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament and in municipal elections (Article 22(1) TFEU) in the Member State in which they reside, under the same conditions as nationals of that State (for the rules on participation in municipal elections see Directive 94/80/EC of 19 December 1994, and for the rules governing election to the European Parliament, see Directive 93/109/EC of 6 December 1993) (1.3.4);
  • the right to diplomatic protection in the territory of a third country (non-EU state) by the diplomatic or consular authorities of another Member State, if their own country does not have diplomatic representation there, to the same extent as that provided for nationals of that Member State;
  • the right to petition the European Parliament (second paragraph of Article 24 TFEU) and the right to apply to the Ombudsman (third paragraph of Article 24 TFEU) appointed by the European Parliament concerning instances of maladministration in the activities of the Community institutions or bodies. These procedures are governed respectively by Articles 227 and 228 TFEU (1.3.16 and 2.1.4);
  • the right to write to any Community institution or body in one of the languages of the Member States and to receive a response in the same language (fourth paragraph of Article 24 TFEU);
  • the right to access European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, subject to certain conditions (Article 15(3) TFEU).


With the exception of electoral rights, the substance of Union citizenship achieved to date is to a considerable extent simply a systematisation of existing rights (particularly as regards freedom of movement, the right of residence and the right of petition), which are now enshrined in primary law on the basis of a political idea.

By contrast with the constitutional understanding in European states since the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights of 1789, no specific guarantees of fundamental rights are associated with citizenship of the Union. Article 6 TEU, as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon, states that the Union recognises the rights set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and that it will accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, but it does not make any reference to the legal status of Union citizenship (1.1.6 ‘Fundamental rights in the European Union’).

Union citizenship does not as yet entail any duties for citizens of the Union, despite the wording to that effect in Article 20(2) TFEU. This constitutes a major difference between EU citizenship and citizenship of a Member State.

d.European Citizens’ Initiative (2.1.5)

Article 22, second paragraph, of the EC Treaty already provided opportunities for the gradual development of EU citizenship, shoring up the legal status of EU citizens at European level. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon retains these provisions (Article 25 TFEU), and Article 11(4) TEU provides for a new right for EU citizens: ‘Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties’. The conditions governing the submission and admissibility of any such initiative by citizens are the subject of Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the citizens’ initiative (2.1.5). Its main provisions are as follows:

  • the signatories of a citizens’ initiative must come from at least a quarter of the Member States, and the minimum number of signatories from each of those Member States should be equal to the number of MEPs that Member State has, multiplied by 750;
  • there must be at least seven organisers, who are EU citizens old enough to vote in European Parliament elections and who reside in at least seven different Member States; this committee will then need to appoint one main representative and one deputy who will be responsible for liaising with the European Commission;
  • a citizens’ initiative is admissible if it fulfils the following conditions: a citizens’ committee has been formed and contact persons appointed; the proposed initiative does not manifestly fall outside the framework of the European Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union, and is not manifestly contrary to the values of the Union as set out in Article 2 TEU; it is not abusive, frivolous or vexatious;
  • citizens’ initiatives complying with these admissibility criteria must be registered by the European Commission within two months of receipt.

Once received, the initiative will be published on the European Commission’s website. A meeting will be held at which the organisers can present the issues raised, and the European Commission then has three months to bring forward its legal and political conclusions.

With the aim of ensuring that the procedure is clear and easy to follow, the Regulation on the Citizens’ Initiative includes a ‘statement of support form’ (including the data required for verification by the Member States), which also outlines the procedures and conditions for the collection of the forms. The organisers are subject to obligations to protect personal data. They are also liable for any damage caused by the organisation of an initiative, and penalties may be imposed for infringing the regulation.

Role of the European Parliament

In electing the European Parliament (EP) by direct suffrage, EU citizens are exercising one of their essential rights in the European Union, that of democratic participation in the European political decision-making process. As regards the procedures for the election of its Members, the EP has always called for the implementation of a uniform electoral system in all the Member States. Article 223 TFEU provides that the EP shall draw up a proposal to that effect (‘to lay down the provisions necessary for the election of its Members by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States or in accordance with principles common to all Member States’). The Council will then lay down the necessary provisions (acting unanimously and after obtaining the consent of the majority of the Members of the EP), which will enter into force following their approval by the Member States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements (1.3.4).

The EP has always wanted to endow the institution of EU citizenship with comprehensive rights. It advocated the determination of EU citizenship on an autonomous Community basis, so that EU citizens would have an independent status. In addition, from the start it advocated the incorporation of fundamental and human rights into primary law and called for EU citizens to be entitled to bring proceedings before the Court of Justice when those rights were violated by EU institutions or a Member State (resolution of 21 November 1991).

During the negotiations on the Treaty of Amsterdam, the EP again called for the rights associated with EU citizenship to be extended, and it criticised the fact that the Treaty did not make any significant progress on the substance of citizenship, either in regard to individual or to collective rights. It should be noted, however, that since the Treaty of Amsterdam the codecision procedure has applied to the measures to make it easier to exercise the rights associated with EU citizenship (Article 18(2) TFEU).

In accordance with the EP’s requests, the TFEU (Article 263, fourth paragraph) stipulates that any natural or legal person may institute proceedings against an act addressed to that person or which is of direct and individual concern to him or her, and against a regulatory act which is of direct concern to him or her and does not entail implementing measures.

As regards the right of access to documents, on 17 December 2009 the EP adopted a resolution on improvements needed in the legal framework for access to documents following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. Among other things, it stressed the need to widen the scope of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 to encompass all the institutions and bodies not covered by the original text.

As regards the European Citizens’ Initiative, three months after the submission of a citizens’ initiative which has received the required number of statements of support, Commission representatives meet the organisers so that they can explain in detail the issues raised in their initiative, and the organisers also have the opportunity to present their initiative at a public hearing in the European Parliament (Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 February 2011 on the citizens’ initiative).

Udo Bux