Mixed signals on citizenship

by Rhodri C. Williams

The last few weeks have brought a confusing spate of reports that predict the demise of traditional, monogamous one person-one passport citizenship along with others that indicate that states are more determined than ever to retain its essence. So what does this have to do with this blog? Well, for one thing, citizenship is the glue that governments have traditionally used to bind particular populations to the territories they control, completing the triangle of statehood. But the issue also has personal overtones for me as part of the great global expat class. I’ve got two dual citizen kids, and could probably use a bit of dual citizenship myself, at the very least as a matter of administrative convenience.

Should administrative convenience count? The Economist argues yes in an editorial the week before last, noting that traditional citizenship was never an ironclad guarantee of loyalty, and nor is it particularly relevant to security in an age of professional militaries. Although significant complications involving voting rights are acknowledged, the magazine sees and applauds a trend toward routine multiple citizenship as an economic win-win situation, and one in which tax residence can serve as a new and more practical signifier of political loyalties:

Rather than making a fetish out of passports, a better approach would be to use residence (especially tax residence) as the main criterion for an individual’s rights and responsibilities. That encourages cohesion and commitment, because it stems from a conscious decision to live in a country and abide by its rules.

However, an article in the same Economist outlines new restrictions on the acquisition of dual citizenship imposed by EU states such as the Netherlands and Germany. Meanwhile, citizenship law expert Peter Spiro posts on Opinio Juris on how the US – which is already virtually unique in imposing double taxation on its better-earning expat citizens – has now piled on burdensome reporting requirements on assets held abroad. Spiro notes that the requirement may make it impossible for the 4-6 million Americans abroad to open local bank accounts and speculates that many with dual citizenship will go underground or renounce their US citizenship.

However, Israel appears to have gone furthest in bucking the trend toward more liberal citizenship rules, with its  Supreme Court deciding last week that Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens may be categorically excluded from citizenship. Sound a bit … oh, well … hard to square with fundamental non-discrimination norms?  Israeli judge Asher Grunis will no doubt long be remembered for his pithy response:

Human rights do not prescribe national suicide.

Well, don’t they now? In a separate and fascinating survey of trends in citizenship law, Peter Spiro argues in the latest American Journal of International Law that perhaps they do. Sadly, the full article lurks behind a subscription-wall, but the abstract can be read here:

State practices relating to nationality and citizenship have historically been insulated from international law. That is beginning to change as citizenship moves into a human rights frame. Citizenship practices relating to naturalization, birthright citizenship, and dual citizenship are being measured against anti-discrimination and self-governance norms. These developments will expand access to citizenship, though the new international law of citizenship may also contribute to the erosion of state solidarities that are important to liberal governance.

In essence, Spiro argues that human rights norms are inexorably curtailing the the traditional prerogative of states to ‘self-define’ their membership through the discretionary grant of citizenship. Given that human rights advocates have focused on forbidding the arbitrary denial of citizenship to long-term residents, liberal theory would ordinarily hold that those eligible for citizenship under such terms would likely have integrated over time and made the type of “conscious decision to live in a country and abide by its rules” the Economist lauds (above) in promoting tax residence as a sort of contemporary proxy for what citizenship has been.

However, Spiro cites the scale of current migration and the nature of globalization in questioning whether such bonds can still be said to automatically result from residency. Ultimately, he raises the question of whether “internationally mandated membership” may not only reduce the levels of solidarity in states, but also – and as a result – their actual capacity to continue acting as the primary guarantors of human rights. Death of states? Not necessarily. Default devolution of some of the central attributes of sovereignty to supranational institutions that will hopefully have the legitimacy and capacity to pick up the slack by then? Well, stay tuned.

So where do my loyalties (or at least my sympathies) lie? I pay taxes and consume services in Sweden, and enjoy a quality of life here that would be the envy of a vast proportion of my fellow global citizens. I participate most emphatically in the culture of Finland, or rather Åland, at least since I got involved in the slightly manic ritual of wrestling the annual midsummer pole up along with the other (and better qualified) yeomen of my wife’s ancestral village. And whenever I get back to the  States again, its like I’ve woken up from a dream. Not a bad one, mind you, but one that has you scratching your head because it seemed so plausible at the time, but could it really have been like that?? I guess a bit of cultural vertigo is the sign of our times.

8 responses to “Mixed signals on citizenship

  1. As an update, it seems Sweden still believes in the integrative power of citizenship, in line with classic liberal theory. The Local reports on a new initiative by the Integration Minister, Erik Ullenhag to review Sweden’s naturalization procedures:

    “The goals of citizenship inquiry, according to the minister, are to provide suggestions for defining the meaning of Swedish citizenship as well as proposals for the organizing of citizenship ceremonies accessible to all new Swedish citizens.

    In addition, the inquiry will be tasked with “examining whether citizenship can, to a greater extent, be used as an incentive to promote integration”.

    “The thought is that citizenship in itself should symbolize a common future rather than a common history,” writes Ullenhag.

    “The question we must ask ourselves is how we can best secure a fellowship, a social glue, what holds society together.”’

    See: http://www.thelocal.se/38522/20120116/

  2. My boys have 4 citizenships – a curious historical relic of South Slav fragmentation. I’m not sure they could even list them all. So much for cultural glue… 🙂 M.

  3. Sure, but the wonderful thing about the western Balkans is how the cultural glue largely remains despite the best effort of border drawing politicians! Interesting too how highly liberal dual citz rules were mobilized as an explicit confidence and peace-building measure in Bosnia when we worked there and later in Kosovo in accordance with the Ahtisaari plan. Bratstvo i jedinstvo jos zive, druze!

  4. The Israeli ruling — and underlying law — is truly nuts. But I guess Palestinians have the consolation of being in good company: “In 2007, [the exclusion law] was expanded to apply to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” Wow.

  5. Indeed – but note that the Palestinians are also excluded from citizenship and/or exercise of their rights in a number of those other places as well. I’ve got a report coming out about Lebanon soon, where even allowing Palestinian refugees to own the homes they live in is seen by many as a tad too close to local integration to be thinkable. So, its reciprocal discrimination between the states and mutual disenfranchisement of the stateless…

  6. Pingback: TN turns two! | TerraNullius

  7. Pingback: Annual double-taxation-without-representation time rolls around for US citizens abroad | TerraNullius

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