Citizenship and Responsibilities
Citizenship entails rights, but rights do not define citizenship.
Introducing in our last issue the European Year of Citizens 2013, Alessandro Calcagno noted its clear and legitimate focus on ‘informing people of their rights’, while stating the need for a richer conversation that also explores citizens’ responsibilities.
Through an informal association on Active Citizenship, JESC and a group of academics sought to meet this very need in organising a day’s conference on January 31st, hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC): the venue appropriate since, as an advisory body of the EU, the EESC has the formal function of promoting more effective citizen dialogue.
Europe faces simultaneous crises: of finance and the economy, of social exclusion caused in part by those crises (as in the case of youth unemployment), and of the environment. Underlying these crises and exacerbated by them is a pervasive lack of trust in political institutions that struggle to respond to the crises effectively. This amounts to a further crisis, one of citizenship, at both national and European level Without the active public engagement of citizens, politicians and officials would be cut adrift as a closed circle, ‘open’ only to private influence by the most powerful lobbying groups. Politicians would be neither truly ‘representative’ nor truly accountable. The empty shell of democracy would triumph over the democratic ideal.
The EESC conference brought together academics (ethicists lawyers and political scientists and educationalist), politicians and European officials, and civil society organisations involved in practical projects of formation for citizenship. It sought to embody in dialogue the active citizenship it recommended.
At the heart of the day’s discussion was a position paper, itself drawing on three extended academic papers. The conference’s central focus was the complex relationship between human rights (underpinned by law) and individual and collective responsibilities that can never be definitively codified, and which emerge from ethics, philosophical or religious conviction, and good education: second, the necessary balance between rightly recognising the practical advantages gained from European citizenship and the willingness to contribute to the betterment of public life.
Rights discourse remains fundamental. It can be nobly ethical, too, as when we not only singlemindedly defend our own rights but commit ourselves to promoting and defending the rights of vulnerable others. Yet the possession of rights in no way guarantees the quality of political participation.
If, in our view, rights are often emphasised disproportionately (because split from other dimensions that are complementary and essential) that is partly because of the European Commission’s driving role in EU policy formation. The Commission is bound by the European treaties and cannot exceed its legal mandate. Insofar as that is true it challenges other European institutions and for civil society itself - to take responsibility for asserting responsibilities!
Frank Turner SJ