This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 320294


Opening speech Prof Sybe de Vries at the bEUcitizen conference 2016

Dear mr. rector,

Dear team of the University of Oviedo,

Dear colleagues,


First of all, many thanks to the University of Oviedo, particularly the rector, Professor Silvia Gomez and her team for making it possible to host our fourth bEUcitizen General Assembly Meeting!

A conference that is held in a time of great uncertainty for European citizens, faced with rising nationalism, growing xenophobia and populism, fear and anger. These are all culminating in last week’s referendum, wherein the Brits chose to leave the European Union; the Brexit, I am afraid, is casting its shadow over our conference.

Brexit shows that emotions have not been – and possibly can never be – overturned by a strong belief in humanity and the continuous hope for a better future. Scaremongering and emotional feelings were part of the Leave and Remain campaigns in the UK and were further exploited by the media.

In a ‘column’ in one of the major Dutch newspapers NRC Handelsblad Bas Heijne referred to the Belgian writer Simenon, who, having experienced two world wars, a lot of brutality and hardship, still believed in the capacity of human beings to defeat racism, to express solidarity and to promote equality; some of the key values upon which the European Union is based. Are we now, Heijne asks himself, going to leave this worldview? What is certainly not going to help – as we have seen – is a pragmatic, calculating and valueless response.

A commentator on the BBC’s website wrote the following: “But it is undoubtedly true the UK’s immigration debate and the Greek crisis are so heated because people don’t feel the same connection, the same (often limited) desire to help people from other European nations, as they do with those they define as their own. That, not red tape or some ill-defined responsiveness, is the EU’s central problem. It will have to start recognizing it and wrestling with it rather than resenting it and ignoring it, if it wants to survive.”

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and yesterday at the airport in Istanbul will once again inform the already heated debate on immigration, which was the main issue for the Leave campaign. Our open societies based on the worldview of Simenon and his contemporaries are indeed under severe pressure.

According to Martin Seeleib Kaiser in his latest blog on the bEUcitizen website, Brexit has opened an existential phase for the future of the EU. It was not really about Britain’s membership of the EU, but about social inequality. And similar differences and feelings of discontent can be found in many other European countries.

But there are not only feelings of discontent that dominate the debate on the EU. After all the younger generation in the UK voted en masse for staying in; so did the Londoners and Scotland. There were still more than 16 million Britons in favour of staying in. This reveals that there is a growing gap between those who resent globalization, and cherish nationality and sovereignty, the more vulnerable and less educated citizen; and those who belief in and benefit from globalization, the generally stronger and more highly educated citizen. This widening of the gap between groups of citizens is set against the backdrop of a complex European and geopolitical scenery: A scenery, which is increasingly emotionally charged, where emotions spread faster through the (social) media than rational and economic arguments.

Although we should not forget that the relationship between the UK and the continent has never been easy – it was not until 1973 that the UK became a Member State of the EEC -, Brexit does point to structural European problems as well. The institutional structure of the European Union, which was designed within the context of the European Economic Community in 1956 comprising six Member States, must be radically overhauled. A quantum leap is needed with more clearly defined competences at EU level, rethinking the so-called integration by stealth method, increasing democratic control and legitimacy, and redefining the relationship between the EU and its Member States. At the same time, great efforts are required to protect unity within the European area.

Legal challenges relating to the application of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the position of Scotland within the European Union or the pros and cons of the UK adhering to the EEA agreement are awaiting. Legal scholars have already come up with various variations, such as the EEA agreement, an EEA plus arrangement including provisions on the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, an EEA minus agreement, excluding the free movement of persons or separate trade deals. Although some argue that it is highly questionable whether Article 50 will be triggered at all: who of the politicians with a Parliament that by a vast majority wants to stay in the EU, would like to push the red button? Would a second referendum be an option?

The fact is that so far, at least in constitutional terms, nothing has changed.

For that matter, the proponents of the Brexit seem to wish to stay in the Single Market. As if the Single Market should be pictured as a narrow trade agreement, or a narrowly defined economic project. The Single Market is not only built upon the four ‘economic’ freedoms, including the free movement of economically active citizens, it also entails EU rules on socio-economic and flanking policies, it has severe implications for migration policy and is based on the fundamental principles of equality and solidarity. Otherwise, the Single Market is indeed biased by a neo-liberal agenda, something that the pro-Brexit voters precisely rejected. There appears to be a paradox: the Eurosceptic parties wish to abide by a narrowly defined European economic agenda, where citizens only have narrowly defined economic rights, though companies have broad access to foreign markets. This may put their voters, who are in a more vulnerable position, in an even more vulnerable position. The decoupling of the economic and social spheres, as famously framed by Fritz Sharp, has led to major institutional impediments at EU level to pursue a more social Europe, to provide for an equilibrium between conflicting market-making and market-correcting policies. Where this route has been blocked, or bumpy, we should try to find other ways to protect – and to engage in – the more vulnerable citizens in Europe.

If there is one thing we know, it is that the work that you have carried out within the bEUcitizen project matters more than ever. The clock is indeed ticking. Just as Brexit raises concerns and intriguing questions about the future of the UK and the EU, it offers opportunities which the EU should seize. Clues as to how these questions may be answered and how these opportunities could be seized can already be found in the many deliverables that have been produced so far: a tremendous achievement, upon which I would like to complement you.

For instance: clues for the use of referenda and the circumstances under which these could or could not enhance the legitimacy of the European Union; clues for enhancing legitimacy at European level; clues for the development of more local concepts of citizenship with citizenship rights being reasonably accessible, as existed in towns before the French revolution; clues for protecting and fostering cultural diversity and a sense of belonging in the Member States through the establishment of robust EU institutions; clues for a more economically sound, social and inclusive citizenship; clues for the recognition of a broader conception of work, protecting the position of immigrant women; clues for a better protection of civil rights of citizens throughout the EU and within the Member States, some of which face particular challenges when it comes to human rights and the rule of law.

During this General Assembly we can capitalize on our findings and respond to the challenges that Europe and European citizenship face, firstly, by organizing panel discussions in which our findings are synthesized according to five cross-cutting themes, i.e. concepts of citizenship, rivaling citizenship rights, levels of rivalries, rivalries of categories of citizens and gender and generational aspects of citizenship. We will also look at future scenarios for the development of European citizenship during this conference, one of which may have become reality already, and, of course, we will meet each other in individual work package meetings, to discuss the final stage of our work.

For that matter, Oviedo seems exactly the right place to be for our bEUcitizen conference at this moment of time. Our quest for and belief in an ideal European citizenship will be reinforced by good food, sparkling cider and a spiritual and dramatic scenery. In the conference map you find information on this beautiful, historic town. On Friday an excursion is planned, which shows you some of the cultural and gastronomical highlights of this town and the region of Asturias.

But do not get yourselves too much distracted by emotional feelings, and stay focused on the topic of this conference and on the key question of which values should underline the concept and idea of European citizenship.

To assist you herein, you will find a postcard, a print of a painting by Pauline Phoa with a poem, written by Hanneke van Eijken. This painting was given to me as a present on my inaugural lecture held in Utrecht last year. The painting and the poem symbolize Europe and the values it stands, or should stand, for, and it should remind us that these values are indeed worth fighting for.

This brings me to my final point: I wish you all a fruitful conference, which is our next last bEUcitizen conference, as we have now entered the final year of our research project.

And once again, many thanks to all of you who show such strong commitment to our project.