Tuesday, 23 April 2013 18:29

We the citizens

Written by Olimpia Parje

I believe it was Socrates who said, "I am not an Athenian nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world." This idea never seemed as true as it does today, in a globalised world and even more so living in a Europe where the different nations, citizens and states seem to be more intertwined than anywhere else in the world.

So what does it mean to be a citizen in today's Europe? What kind of actions, attitudes, attributes can you find behind such dense concepts? These are the questions which 21 young Europeans from across the continent tried to answer at the week-long seminar "Promoting Citizenship", organised by the Berlin based NGO Citizens of Europe. Germans, Romanians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Armenians and Belarusians – you couldn't find a more diverse group if you tried – attempted to come up with a definition of citizenship that fits one and all. Needless to say this proved to be an almost impossible task.

On the one hand, citizenship is a legal concept – as defined in treaties, constitutions and other legal documents – and it gives a person a set of rights such as the right to vote and the right to travel, as well as obligations such as paying taxes and respecting the law. On the other hand, some argued, citizenship is a set of actions and attitudes: taking care of your surroundings and your community, a responsibility to act whenever there is a need for it.

No man is an island, entire of itself. But is he a citizen?

So what makes a citizen then? A heated debate was stirred up when someone brought up the example of Robinson Crusoe – if you live alone on a desert island are you a citizen of that island? Opinions were divided – some argued that you need a community, a group of people for the concept of citizenship to be in place. Most participants seemed to agree that you need a formal structure, most commonly a state to be a citizen. But what if you declare your island a state? Does it still count if nobody else knows you are there – or do you need some kind of recognition from others? Let this serve as food for thought for all of us. After the very theoretical and controversial discussion on the nature of citizenship, the topic changed to that of active citizenship, what it means and where it applies.

Photo: Citizens of Europe e.V.
Discussing citizenship

The Council of Europe defines active citizenship as a form of literacy, involvement in public life, critical thinking and taking direct action to improve the well-being of a community or society as a whole. The participants of the seminar partly agreed with this definition, adding to it a concern for morality and the idea that active citizenship involves respect for human rights and peoples' individual freedoms – it doesn't count when you are harming others with your actions.

"Europe is whatever considers itself to be European"

After a few days spent on discussions in the seminar room, the participants went to visit two NGOs which work on the topic of Citizenship from different angles – European Movement Germany and MitOst. A very logical question came up at the headquarters of European Movement: what is European citizenship? Beyond the common interchanging of the concepts of EU citizenship and European citizenship, the latter is commonly believed to be more than just a set of rights added on top of national citizenship. You may argue that the concept of European citizenship is related to European values, but the obvious question then arises: what are European values and what makes them predominantly European? Aren't those values we often talk about as European values in fact universal values, such as respect for human rights, freedom and democracy?

By the end of the week the participants went home with a lot of new ideas, some project drafts for promoting citizenship in their home cities but most of all, a brand new set of questions to ask themselves and those around them. And what can be better than going home with an even greater thirst for knowledge?

Last modified on Saturday, 27 April 2013 09:29

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