On citizenship

The Tory party congress held last week in Birmingham sparked tremendous controversy, not least because of Theresa May’s statement on citizenship. “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, she said. From a legalist and formal perspective, she is absolutely right: in the absence of World Government and hence global political community to be part of, the concept of global citizenship is inane.

Whether her point remains valid when looked at through the lens of people’s personal aspirations and informal sense of belonging is much less clear: citizens of the world have – sometimes strong – local bonds, which they build upon to become part of a broader global community. Moreover, those local memberships are sometimes multiple: individuals feel bound to more than one place. Hence, if anything, citizens of the world are citizens from everywhere.

In the midst of the same lyrical musings, Mrs May carried on to say that the same people who identify themselves with a hypothetical global citizenship “do not understand what citizenship means”. I disagree.

Citizenship, in its original sense, indicated membership of a politically organised community living on the territory of a city and, from the Antiquity onward, has been associated with political rights and duties. As such communities soon started to extend beyond the geographical boundaries of cities, the concept grew out of its geographical references to indicate membership of any formally recognised political constituency. Nowadays, citizenship is identified with membership of a political community living on the territory of sovereign nation-states.

This does not mean, however, that local citizenship has been abandoned, nor negated. It simply means that it is encompassed by a broader, formally recognised citizenship. Citizenship, in that sense, is multi-dimensional or, more accurately, multi-layered, regardless of any formal recognition.

This is why Mrs May’s use of the concept is deeply misleading — so much that I am left wondering whether she was speaking for herself when blaming those who don’t understand its meaning. She is viewing global and local citizenship as mutually exclusive whereas they are, in fact, truly complementary. The global and local political communities to which the different citizenships pertain do not deal with the same set of issues and, except for specific and clearly identified cases, do not not appeal to the same formal competences.

The best formal example of that complementarity is EU citizenship. Introduced by the Maastricht Treaty (1992), it was precisely crafted along the view that it should be additional to formal national level political belonging (“[…]. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship.”, Art. 20, TFUE).

As a Belgian citizen currently established in the UK and having successively lived in different European cities, I have probably made an extensive use of that citizenship. But acknowledging that, my European belonging hasn’t clashed with the many local citizenships that I have taken while moving around. My citizenship has been in flux, subject to constant redefinition. When I left my hometown for the first time, I knew that I would gradually lose the sense of political belonging that I had harboured with it but that a new one would soon emerge. Never has my European citizenship prevented me from trying to understand and abide by the rules of the citizenship of the places I have settled in. The various layers of my citizenship have simply made me aware of different issues and causes of concern.

Now, one may object that my view is biased by my own personal trajectory. But as recently pointed out by the Washington Post, a study conducted by GlobeScan in eighteen nations, showed that 47 percent of Britons would somewhat or strongly agree that they see themselves more as global citizens than citizens of the United Kingdom. Similar results have been noted in other countries. Hence the disturbing fact about Mrs May’s discourse is that by opposing the complementarity of local and global citizenship and downplaying – if not discarding – the latter, she is neglecting part of the UK’s own citizens’ identity.

Rather than trying to crush that global citizenship, which many citizens of the world long for, a far better strategy for Mrs May – and political representatives elsewhere – would be to design a strategy to articulate it with its local counterpart and ensure their smooth co-existence.