The European Union is the largest peace project in history. As such it must be understood, defended, strengthened and undoubtedly improved. Talking to someone who has lived through the war is all it takes to understand that peace cannot be taken for granted, not even in the twenty-first century. History teaches us that we Europeans have been one of the most stubborn and abusive people on the face of the earth. Probably, considering a war in Europe today as unlikely to result almost ridiculous, is already the greatest victory of the European Union.
1) One of the pillars of the European Union is the freedom of movement of people, regulated by art. 45 of the 1957 Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. This principle was later strengthened with the introduction of the European citizenship in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and with the Schengen agreements. This freedom represents one of the fundamental rights of every European citizen, who can move freely within the Union with a simple identity document, without the need for a visa or passport nor a specific work or residence permit. This right also applies in some countries of the European Economic Area such as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. When looking for a job, mobile citizens have the right to receive the same assistance guaranteed to the citizens of the host State. Moreover, they can remain there even beyond the duration of the working period. During this period of stay, mobile citizens enjoy equal treatment for what concerns access to work, working conditions and any other social and fiscal benefit. Moreover, these very rights are also guaranteed to the worker’s family members who have moved abroad. Freedom of movement also applies to those who want to travel to another Member State to study, or simply for a trip. If you go to another EU country, for a period not exceeding 3 months, the possession of an identity document is all you need. For longer periods, if individuals do not work in the host state, they must have sufficient resources to support themselves and hold an health insurance. The 3-month limit is designed to avoid excessive burdens on host countries. Freedom of movement for people is crucial for European integration. Being able to go and live in every other European country allows you to create a feeling of belonging to the Union and to increase your cultural baggage, in addition to multiplying job opportunities. In 2015, 11.3 million workers lived in an EU state other than their country of origin, around 4% of the working-age population. Recently, Islamic terrorism and migration from Africa and the Middle East have led to some limitations on freedom of movement for reasons of national security. In particular, border controls have been reintroduced in some countries and some borders have been closed again. Security is a fundamental issue, which every state should guarantee to its citizens, but, often, the reintroduction of borders has been a pretext to seek electoral support. Greater effort in cooperation by all Member States on issues such as security and migration could have a much more significant impact on solving current problems, without compromising or limiting the freedom of movement of workers in the Union. Consumer rights are also at the heart of the Court of Justice of the EU’s protection activity, which can intervene in disputes regarding the purchase of goods and services in the EU country of residence or in another EU country and in disputes concerning payments received or made in other EU countries.
2) Erasmus is probably the most successful project of the EU, because it is also the one that most reflects the EU values of fraternity, peace, dialogue and propensity to the future. The beautiful story of the birth of the Erasmus can be found, masterfully told, by clicking on this link. The project was born in 1987, and so far it has been exploited by 9 million Europeans. Indicative of the beauty of Erasmus is that the vast majority of those who enrolled in the program, if given the chance, would redo it all over once again. A recent survey (with a sample of one million students) shows how, despite the expenses to be incurred, the difficulties in converting grades, housing, studying in a second language and more generally adapting to a new environment, as many as 93% of participants say they are satisfied with the experience. In fact, Erasmus has an incredible added value: it allows you to learn another language, it increases the spirit of adaptability and resourcefulness, encourages confrontation, and (in my opinion even more importantly) allows you to start from scratch, reinventing yourself as you wish. A criticism that is often made to the project is that it is not accessible to all students. This is why the EU member States, in accordance with the Commission’s guidelines, continue to strengthen Erasmus (for example, in 2019 the funds allocated to Erasmus have increased by 300 million euros, a 10% rise compared to 2018). To be precise, today the program is called Erasmus + and is not solely dedicated to studying, but it is also inclusive of working abroad. The Erasmus placement offers those most deserving a training opportunity in one of the EU member countries at no cost to companies, which will form the young trainee in a few months (generally three), and it allows the trainee to have some means of support for that timespan. Another branch of the project is Erasmus Mundus: aimed at young researchers, this allows you to complete a phd by doing research in different universities throughout Europe. Finally, I believe it is worth mentioning also the European voluntary service (EVS), a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and civic awareness designed for young people.
3) The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is one of the fundamental institutions of the EU. It’s primary function is ensuring that European laws and regulations are correctly and uniformly interpreted and applied in all Member States. Moreover, the CJEU checks that the various European and national institutions act in a lawfully consistent manner. The role of the Court does not end there, in fact it also plays a crucial role in direct support to citizens. Normally, the legal protection of citizens is guaranteed by national institutions. Nonetheless, for some problems (especially when they concern laws or institutions from different countries), the Court of Justice has to step in. European citizens can apply to the Court through the European Court of Justice or through the courts of the individual States. They can do so if they look after protection in matters of social security, residence rights, and recognition of qualifications for those who travel to another EU country to work . As regards social security, among the major areas of jurisdiction of the Court there are the rights to receive urgent health care in every EU country, protection of pensions, and family allowances. Contrasting and combating discrimination is another key issue in the Court’s work.
Consumer rights are also at the heart of the Court of Justice’s protection activity, which can intervene on disputes concerning the purchase of goods and services in the EU country of residence, or in another EU country, and on disputes concerning payments received or made in other EU countries.
Companies can rely on the Court to obtain support against unfair treatment by national institutions and public bodies, but not on issues such as VAT refunds and other commercial matters. The Court also acts to punish unfair practices of commercial competition.
In recent times, politics has sometimes proved itself incapable of addressing crucial issues in the life of citizens. Although it is essential to keep judicial activity separate from political and administrative, the Court can be an important ally for citizens to assert their rights and defend their interests. Lately, the Court has intervened on topical issues that governments and local institutions had not dealt with in an appropriate manner, or indeed, had not faced at all. An example is the intervention to protect Italian entrepreneurs for delays in payments by the Public Administration (PA).
On 7 December 2017, Italy was referred by the Court of Justice for the systematic delays in paying off payables with suppliers. The referral concerns the failure to comply with the European directive which limits the time to 30 days, 60 only for medical institutions. In 2016, the average payment period of the PA in Italy was 100 days. In 2016, Eurostat estimated an amount of 49 billion of PA’s debt. The Italian government, urged by the European institutions and by the risks linked with the bankruptcy of many State’ suppliers if the debts were not paid, has already partially reduced the level of debt, allocating 50 billion. However, only 60% of these funds were actually used to pay the debts of the PA. If the situation does not improve, Italy will be fined by the Court of Justice. Very often this news is reported by the media as punishment inflicted on Italy by the EU. Instead, this intervention is a guarantee for Italian citizens and entrepreneurs, because many supplying companies failed or are at the brink of bankruptcy due to these late payments. It is therefore necessary, when politics and public administration do not adequately carry out their activity, that there is an institution alongside citizens that protects them: The Court of Justice of the European Union.
Giovanni Sgaravatti and Michele Corio