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EUROPEAN CONSCIENCE – Limited freedom of movement

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Freedom of movement for people is one of the pillars of the European Union, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. But its application is still a problem.

A British citizen who lives between Hungary and Cameroon decides that he would like his Cameroonian wife to visit him in Budapest. He sends the request for a short-term visa for her to enter the Schengen area, the territory of 26 European countries that have abolished borders with one another. The request should be dealt with through a fast-track and free procedure, as required by the European rules for non-European family members of EU citizens, who enjoy the right to freedom of movement. Nevertheless the consular employee insists that the applicant provides a contract of employment in Hungary and a current bank statement as well as paying for the cost of issuing the visa. The application, therefore, is dealt with as a tourist visa. The result: the visa application is rejected due to lack of documentation and suspicions that the applicant is in a marriage of convenience.

This is not a unique story, but one of many cases examined by Your Europe Advice, a free information service specialized in the rights of citizens in Europe. The service is managed for the European Commission by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), an organisation based in Brussels and that deals with citizenship issues. Each year Your Europe Advice receives around 20,000 requests for assistance to which they respond in one of the 24 official languages of the EU, indicating to the users how best to resolve their various problems.

Following an analysis of these requests, ECAS has compiled a report on the difficulties faced by people who decide to move to other EU countries. There are around 20 million Europeans that choose to live, study or work in another nation of the EU, just 3.8% of the total population. For many the move does not involve any particular difficulties, but for others it resembles an obstacle course.

Based on ECAS data from January 2015 to June 2017, the right of free entry in another EU country is still difficult to ensure. The problems are various, ranging from paper identity cards (for example, in Greece and Hungary) that are not accepted as valid travel documents in other countries to the failure of consular authorities to issue particular documents to their own citizens. Furthermore, children with dual nationalities can encounter difficulties. Poland, for example, requires that children of its own citizens possess a Polish passport in order to leave the country.

The overwhelming majority of procedural obstacles, nevertheless, concern partners or family members of non-EU origin, as was the case with the British man in Hungary. Often the problems are due to a lack of adequate information or the need to deal with visa staff that are not up to date on the latest European regulations. The visa for the Schengen area, for example, is not necessary for non-European family members who already possess a residence document in the European Union. And when visas are required, there should be a simplified procedure in order to obtain it.

Concerning this matter, according to ECAS, requests for assistance have increased significantly in the last six years, passing from 11% to 20% of the total. “The difficulties encountered by the family members of mobile EU citizens reveal a worrying tendency, which threatens an important foundation of our societies, the right to family life”, said the director of ECAS, Assya Kavrakova.

The second alarm bell concerns the right of residency. In general, this is not a problem for those who move from another EU country with an employment contract. But for students, the self-employed, part-time workers, self-sufficient individuals or job-seekers, the road can be an uphill struggle due to the contradictory regulations imposed by national authorities.

In Sweden, for example, all residents must enrol at the registry office and have a personal identification number issued (the personnummer is the equivalent of the tax code or National Insurance number in the UK). Without this number, it is not possible to access public services such as healthcare. Many EU residents, however, are denied the number because they cannot prove that they will remain in the country for at least one year (for example, temporary workers) and, at the same time, their European healthcare cards, which should enable them to temporarily access Swedish state medical care, are not recognised

In France, European residents are not required to sign on to the population register. Those who must register, for example, in order to obtain a residence certificate often see their request refused because it is not considered necessary. Without documents, however, it is not possible to access social services. With the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, this situation poses a particular problem for British citizens, who risk not being able to prove how long they have lived in France.

Then there is Spain, France, Italy and Portugal, which often do not recognise birth or marriage certificates issued in non-EU countries. In these cases the consular authorities request that the document is authenticated and translated by an official translator or that it has been issued at least three months previously. All of this can require long procedures and journeys to the countries in question, with exorbitant costs. It is even more difficult to obtain recognition for the civil unions of homosexual couples.

These are just some of the main questions to have emerged from the ECAS report “Freedom of Movement in the EU: A Look Behind the Curtain”. In practice, the list of obstacles on the path towards a European life is very long. What is happening to the idea of a single space in which people, families and businesses all stand to benefit?

“The situation of citizens’ rights in Europe has deteriorated since 2015 as a spill-over effect of the economic crisis, the surge of immigrants and refugees, and the terrorist threat. The attention has shifted towards security and EU member states have become more inventive, so to speak, on ways to undermine free movement”, explained Kavrakova. “Problems in the way free movement rules are enforced are not new. In the past, the most problematic issue has been the right to access social security in other EU countries. But since 2015 we have seen more obstacles on the right of entry and residence too. This is worrying because these are the rights at the heart of EU citizenship”, she added.

Freedom of circulation is one of the cornerstones of the EU, stated in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (together with the free movement of goods, capital and services). The principle was conceived in order to “eliminate the barriers that divide Europe” and to “lay the foundations of an increasingly closer union between Europe’s peoples”. Over the years, directives, regulations and judgements by the European Court of Justice have contributed to translating the principle into reality.

Nowadays, according to a recent poll by Eurobarometer, 82% of European citizens are favourable to free movement, a percentage that reaches 95% in the Baltic countries, 72% in the United Kingdom and 70% in Italy. Moreover 58% consider free movement as one the European Union’s greatest successes. But the ECAS report shows that its implementation remains incomplete, a sign that for many of the governments that “closer union” is not such a priority after all and that people from other countries are still perceived more as guests than citizens.

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