Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Joint consular work to reinforce 'EU citizenship'

  • Libya evacuation effort. Eight member states' consulates in Libya helped pull out around 5,000 EU citizens from across the bloc (Photo: USEmbMalta)

The EU commission has urged all 27 member states to print a line in their passports telling people they have special rights as EU citizens if they get into trouble abroad.

The idea is part of broader guidelines on EU consular protection adopted by the Brussels executive on Wednesday (23 March). Passports from 20 EU member states already advertise the fact that if your own country cannot help you while abroad, any other EU consulate you can get to is legally obliged to step in.

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The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Portugal and Slovakia have not yet made the move.

"What counts is that people are confident they can get a helping hand from fellow member states," commission spokesman Matthew Newman said.

The new 10-page-long guidelines urge EU countries' consulates to spell out people's rights on their websites, to send information to tourist centres and police stations and to hold seminars for consular officials using an EU fact-sheet. They point out that Catherine Ashton's EU embassies are obliged to help people if member states send them a formal request.

The commission on Tuesday also launched a new website, to be run by justice commissioner Viviane Reding's officials. The site pulls together on one page all travel warnings issued by EU countries' foreign ministries on trouble spots.

In 12 months' time, the executive aims to propose a new law obliging one EU country to reimburse a fellow EU member if it pays money to help evacuate the former's citizens, to give them medical treatment or to ship their dead body home.

A commission memo highlighted that during recent crises in Egypt, Haiti, Japan and Libya, EU countries already "pulled together" in what it called "European solidarity in action."

In Japan, Germany put 18 non-German EU citizens on a bus to flee the nuclear-crisis-struck city of Sendai. In Libya, eight EU consulates pulled out almost 5,000 citizens from across the union. Hungary airlifted 29 Romanians, 27 Hungarians, 20 Bulgarians, eight Germans and six Czechs from Tripoli.

The memo said EU citizens now take around 90 million foreign trips each year and that 30 million EU nationals reside outside the bloc. Just three countries - China, Russia and the US - host consulates from all 27 EU members, however.

Joint consular protection became part of EU law with the Lisbon Treaty in late 2009. But the kind of EU solidarity shown in Libya cannot always be taken for granted.

During the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008, a Spanish liberal MEP, Ignasi Guardans, said a group of euro-deputies and their assistants were hiding in the Taj Mahal hotel when the German consul arrived. "He came and he picked up only the Germans, saying that memorable sentence which I will never forget 'I can take only the Germans' and then he left, taking only his fellow citizens and leaving everyone else," Mr Guardans recalled at the time.

Some EU citizens also fall between two stools because they are long-term residents in other EU countries but have kept their original citizenship.

When Michael Dixon, a British journalist resident in Belgium for 10 years, went missing in Costa Rica in 2009, the British police originally advised the family to contact Belgian authorities. But Belgian authorities refused to help.

The Dixons say the British consulate in Costa Rica did the bare minimum to help and got advice that Spanish diplomats might have more clout in San Jose. The commission's Newman said he did not want to comment on an individual case, but that in theory the Dixons have no legal right to approach other EU consulates because Dixon is a British citizen and the UK has a consulate in place.

When asked by this website if the new guidelines mean EU citizens should have priority over non-EU citizens in the case of, say, an EU-country-owned boat with limited space for evacuees, he answered: "This communication is not about non-EU citizens."

"I can't go into hypothetical cases about emergency situations. Obviously people trying to deal with an emergency have to use their common sense ... If you see somebody drowning, you're not going to ask: 'What country are you from?'"

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