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The majority of Western European countries, and a handful of those in Eastern Europe, are members of the European Union (EU). The governments of all EU countries work together for mutual economic and social gain. Although each country in the EU maintains its own government structure, EU membership guarantees certain rights and benefits for citizens and businesses alike. A citizen of any EU country is automatically also an EU citizen. European Union citizenship allows an individual to capitalize on any and all of the union’s benefits, including unhindered travel, universal employability, and preferential student status.
The European Union, although made up of different countries, in many ways functions as a single entity for its citizens. The rights of all EU countries are reciprocal. This means that a citizen of any EU country can live, work, and study in any other EU country with the privileges of a citizen. A company in France must consider an applicant from Greece, or Spain, or Italy as equal to a similarly-situated French applicant, for instance. Similarly, a German citizen could move to Malta without question or additional paperwork, and an Austrian student could attend university in Portugal just as easily as she could at home.
The reciprocal rights that citizens of any EU country enjoy are a major benefit of European Union citizenship. That reciprocity makes EU membership desirable for national governments, as well as making citizenship valuable for individuals. For countries, membership in the EU means that resources will be shared with more prosperous members, and that job opportunities and economic benefits will expand in internal markets. The horizons are similarly expanded for individuals. Rather than having just one job market to exploit, an EU citizen has many; rather than having only one country, in many ways the EU citizen has an open door to Europe.
It is not possible to directly obtain European Union citizenship. European Union citizenship is automatically conferred upon the citizens of any EU country. Citizens of the United Kingdom, for instance, are both UK citizens and EU citizens, and the two are inseparable. One is first a citizen of an EU country, and then a citizen of the EU more broadly.
Within the EU, different countries have different immigration policies. It is easier to become a citizen of some European Community countries than it is others. The rights and benefits in some countries are also better than they are in others.
There is no universal health care in the EU, for instance, as health care is managed on the national level. The same is true for employment benefits, tax policies, and social aid. Often, however, the countries with the best policies are also the hardest to immigrate into. Applying for European Union citizenship is often a strategy game of finding the easiest way in, then using the attendant benefits to migrate elsewhere.
Throughout most of the EU, freedom of travel is also a major benefit of citizenship. The majority of the European Union countries are part of what is known as the “Schengen area,” which is an effectively borderless area through which EU citizens can travel freely without a passport and without being stopped by immigration officials. The Schengen area derives its name from an agreement that many of the original EU countries entered into in the town on Schengen, Luxembourg, with the aim of simplifying the ease of traveling in the EU.
Membership in the Schengen area is not automatic for any EU country. To be a member, the country must submit to rigorous border inspections, and the border must be cleared by EU authorities and declared both safe and secure. Not all EU member countries have elected to be members of the Schengen area, while some countries that are not EU members do participate.