European Union citizenship in its outside dimension

May 10, 2021
Maciej Wilga

The European Union (EU) citizenship was established with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. Art. 20 (TFEU) of the Treaty stipulates that “(e)very person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union” and the EU citizenship “shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship”. 

The EU has developed over time and with it the rights of EU citizenship also apply to citizens from the new Member States that joined the EU in 2004-2013. With their legal and geographical remit enlarged, these rights encompass nowadays 27 member states, although with some horizontal differentiation, e. g. concerning the Schengen system. The right to border-free travelling applies only to those EU citizens whose countries are part of it. It is not granted to citizens from e.g. Romania or Bulgaria simply because those EU Member States do not participate in the Schengen system. Conversely, citizens of Norway or Switzerland, whose states are not EU Member States, nevertheless enjoy the right to freely travel in the EU because those states are part of the Schengen system.

Still, EU citizenship’s rights are predominantly enjoyed inside the EU. They mostly relate to the four freedoms of the Single European Market, which among others include residence, travelling, work or pension schemes. The EU citizenship rights also include the right “to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman, and to address the institutions and advisory bodies of the Union (…)”[1], but also to initiate a European citizenship initiative or even to exercise passive and active election rights.[2]

Beyond this main and inside focus on the EU citizenship, there is also an important outside dimension to it. The central article referring to the outside dimension of EU citizens’ rights is Art. 20, 2 (c). It specifies that EU citizens have “the right to enjoy, in the territory of a third country in which the Member State of which they are nationals is not represented, the protection of the diplomatic and consular authorities of any Member State on the same conditions as the nationals of that State”.[3]

There are some general articles in the European Treaties regarding EU citizens’ rights outside the Union. For instance, article 3 (5) (TEU) says that “in its relations with the wider world, the Union shall (…) contribute to the protection of its citizens”.

Beyond general stipulations, the external dimension also defines concrete rights for the EU citizens in particular when located or travelling outside the EU. Geographically closest hereto, where EU citizens enjoy their EU citizenship rights, is the European Economic Area (EEA). In those countries (e.g. Switzerland, Norway), since they fully participate in the Single Market, and some of them also in the Schengen system, the EU citizens can enjoy some of the rights resulting from the four freedoms of the Single market, such as residency, work or travelling rights. These are related to and are products of bilaterally negotiated relations between the EU and the respective countries in the EEA.  

Equally geographically close, and now as a third country to the EU, is the ex-EU Member State, the United Kingdom. Following the Brexit referendum from June 2016, the UK secured its exit on the 31 December 2019. With the signed ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ and during the transition period in 2020, the difficult EU-UK post-Brexit negotiations defined the future relations. Part of these negotiations were the rights of the EU citizens in the UK and vice versa. As during the Withdrawal Agreement and the transition period, the rights of EU citizens to freely move, work or study in the UK were guaranteed provided they were legally living in the UK before the end of the transition period. In this case, those EU citizens can all enjoy today comprehensive protection of their rights without limits.

Recently, the European Commission has accused the UK of unilaterally breaking the Withdrawal Agreement concerning the common market rules in Northern Ireland.[4] If this is the case de jure, the economic rights of EU citizens living in Northern Ireland could be deemed violated.

Going geographically further away, when speaking about the outside dimension of citizens’ rights, we can also talk about rights of EU citizens resident and travelling in third countries far beyond the EU borders. Here too, EU citizens enjoy a number of privileges resulting from the established EU citizenship. Those rights encompass in particular diplomatic and consular protection as well as assistance in crisis situations.

The EU has a large number of bilateral or multilateral relations with many different countries, e.g. within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The EU has also established a dense net of relations with third countries via its development policy tools with partner countries. The rights here may vary from country to country and from treaty to treaty. This is so because the specific regulations on the EU citizens follow what the Commission negotiates with regard to a specific third country or via bilateral agreement. For instance, the Commission may intend to negotiate consent clauses to provide assistance to unrepresented EU citizens. Thus often, EU citizens get help from embassies or consulates of any EU Member State. In some cases, the European diplomatic service, i.e. the ‘European External Action Service’ (EEAS) established in 2010, would help with and assist the coordination between the EU Member States.

This last principle is one of the key rights the EU citizens can make use of when they are abroad and are not represented by their respective national embassies and consulates. That means, in cases where the EU citizens in need of assistance do not find their national embassy, they have the right to turn to any embassy of any of Union’s Member States. Here, EU citizens should be provided with consular protection or assistance, for instance when they are generally in need, when they need emergency travel documents due to damage, loss or theft of passport, in cases of arrest or detention, accident or serious illness, when being a victim of crime, death or other situations of emergency or extraordinary crisis situations.[5]

The latter, i.e. emergency or extraordinary crisis situations, fall outside what is specified by the EU law but EU citizens can still receive support abroad. A good example here can be for instance the ‘COVID-19’ action carried through by the German foreign ministry in spring 2020. The German foreign ministry organised a number of flights to bring German citizens back home. Whenever it was logistically possible and feasible, these actions also included help and assistance for citizens from other EU Member States as well. As the German foreign minister H. Maas recently said in an interview “If we have the capacity, we will take citizens of other EU countries too. By the same token, Germans can be carried on rescue flights organised by other countries. By coordinating like this, we can get all Europeans back home much more quickly”.[6]

When taking a closer look at the content of the Art. 20(2)c, however, it appears as if the EU does not apply the concepts of consular and diplomatic protection as defined under the public international law (PIL).[7] Although similar to the latter, the EU has established its own legal order concerning consular and diplomatic protection for EU citizens, which in practical situations may be subject of uncertainly and lack of precise meaning. In this respect, interesting would be a kind of upgrading the Art. 20(2)c in its practical application especially in crisis situations through ad-hoc types of cooperation between the EU Member States.[8]

To conclude, the content of rights for EU citizens outside the EU borders has been a matter of development over time since the inception of EU citizenship by the Maastricht Treaty. As it is often the case, this development resulted from uncodified practices to primary and later further codification and institutionalisation. Whereas generally the system of EU citizens’ rights outside the Union’s borders is often a matter of negotiations between the European Commission and the respective third country, the consular and diplomatic protection for unrepresented EU citizens is a matter of EU law, diplomatic cooperation between the EU Member States and, in crisis situations, the coordination between the national diplomatic representations and the EEAS in the field.

[1] Bellamy, Richard (2019) Union Citizenship: Supra- and Post-National, Transnational or International; in: Bellamy, Richard (Ed.) A Republican Europe of States. Cosmopolitanism, Intergovernmentalism and Democracy in the EU, Cambridge University Press, London and New York, pp. 131-173, pp. 135.

[2] See also (last accessed 22.03.2021).

[3] Also article 46 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights refers to the diplomatic and consular protection of unrepresented EU citizens. Article 23 of the EU Treaty refers to external action of the Union with potential impact on protection of EU citizens. Additionally, in April 2015, the EU Council adopted an EU directive on consular protection for unrepresented EU citizens living or travelling outside the EU.

[4] See hereto (last accessed 16.03.2021), or (last accessed 16.03.20021).

[5] For more hereto see (last accessed 22.03.2021).

[6] See (last accessed 22.03.2021).

[7] Moraru, Madalina Bianca (2011) Protection of EU citizens abroad: A legal assessment of the EU citizen’s right to consular and diplomatic protection, Perspectives on Federalism 3(2): 67-105; pp. 82. (last accessed on 16.03.2021).

[8] For more hereto see Moraru (2011:  80-81).