Italian MEP protests at EU-Swiss debate

An outspoken far-right Italian MEP interrupted a session of the European Parliament on Wednesday to defend the Swiss anti-immigration vote of February 9th.

Italian MEP protests at EU-Swiss debate
Strasbourg was debating the EU's position on Switzerland in light of the recent referendum. Photo: Cedric Puisney

Strasbourg was debating the EU's position on Switzerland in light of the recent referendum when Italian deputy Mario Borghezio made his protest.

Brandishing a Swiss flag, Borghezio, who is a member of the populist, anti-immigration Northern League, interrupted the debate by shouting: "Yes to the referendum! Yes to the people's freedom!

"Enough of European dictatorship over the people!" he added in Italian and French, before being sternly asked to leave the chamber.

Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten said Borghezio's actions were provoked by a previous speech by infamous German politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit – known as Dany le Rouge from his time as a leader of the Paris student uprisings of 1968 – who is reported to have said "The Swiss want to have their cake and eat it too."

Following the Italian MEP's outburst, a war of words broke out between Cohn-Bendit, the parliamentary leader of the Green party, and Bruno Gollnisch, a member of France's far-right National Front.

"You're complete cretins because you haven't understood Europe's values," Cohn-Bendit told his right-wing rival.

"I'm full of admiration for his intelligence and full of humility for my own cretinism," Gollnisch shot back sarcastically.

Cohn-Bendit later predicted the Swiss would "come back on their knees because they need Europe", saying 60 percent of Switzerland's exports go to the European Union.

"It's up to Switzerland to find solutions, it's up to Switzerland to set its watches to the right time," he said.

The incident reflects the split reaction in Europe to the Swiss vote. While most MEPs have criticized Switzerland's decision to limit immigration from the EU, some right-wing politicians have supported the country.

During Wednesday's session Belgian MEP Philip Claeys said the EU's criticism of the Swiss referendum showed its authoritarian nature, reported the BBC. "The vote had nothing to do with xenophobia, it is a return to common sense," he said.

Others emphasized that the free movement of people is a fundamental pillar of the EU and the introduction of quotas for foreigners in Switzerland is not acceptable.

Switzerland has also blocked free access to employment for people from Croatia, the EU's newest member state.

In retaliation, the EU has suspended talks with Switzerland over its participation in EU research and education programmes, reports the BBC.

Greek deputy foreign minister Dimitris Kouroulas said the EU should "stand by our own principles and not give way to a pick and choose approach to European integration."

Cohn-Bendit stressed the need for Switzerland to find its own solution to the situation, rather than looking to the EU.

"The Swiss are perfectly entitled to vote as they wish, but they are perfectly entitled to take responsibility for the consequences of that vote," he said.

"The Swiss will come back to us on their knees when they need us," he added.

It's not the first time Italian MEP Borghezio has caused unrest, reports 20 Minuten. Last June he was accused of insulting an Italian colleague of Congolese origin, while he has previously expressed sympathy for Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian extremist responsible for the murder of 80 people in 2011.

SEE ALSO: Italian MEP snipes at Italy's first black minister

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”