Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

British citizenship vs European citizenship

A point that arose in the comments to the National identity vs European identity post the other day was that of citizenship, commenter Anoldun noting that

“We were informed we were now “Europeans” when the Treaty of Maastricht was ratified, but the people had nothing to do with wanting to be EU Citizens. They were not asked if they wanted this extra ‘identity’, they did not apply for any such forms to make them citizen’s of Europe and did not even ask for or want them. None of the Commonwealth Countries that fight and die with the British, have British identities or been made British citizens, if THEY wanted to become so they would have to fill forms in etc and if we wanted to give them different identities there would be much form filling and asking of questions. No such things took place when we were made EU Citizens, asked for Passports or have to have an Identity card to prove who we are. I have absolutely no sense of belonging to “Europe” Nosemonkey and certainly none with the EU.”

Citizenship is, of course, effectively a legal codification of a certain form of identity, usually based around the notion of a nation state. EU citizenship is unusual in this regard, to be sure – because despite having certain characteristics of a state, the EU is not one. (For more on the EU as a state, and the perennial fear that it may become a superstate, please see my series of posts on the subject from earlier this year: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

Citizenship as imposition

Citizen SmithThe complaint that EU citizenship has been forced upon us without our say is understandable, but if you think about it for a moment it’s also illogical. After all, the vast majority of us have had no say in what nationality we are, our citizenship having been determined by where we were born (or, in some cases, by that of our parents). I had no more say in being British than I did in being male, or having blond hair and green eyes.

The sudden creation of a new layer of citizenship over and above a national/state one is not a new idea, of course. It happened in the United States back after the American Revolution (the comparison that those who fear an EU superstate are likely to fear), but also rather more recently, with the British Nationality Act 1948. This oft-forgotten Act of Parliament made *every single person* in the British Empire a British citizen, whether they wanted to be or not – and considering this was the year after Indian independence, and shortly before the Empire disintegrated, it’s a safe bet that many had little interest in British citizenship, and if anything would have taken this as a patronising insult.

When it comes to EU citizenship, you may not identify yourself as European; you may not want to be European; but if you are a citizen of an EU member state then you are an EU citizen whether you like it or not – just as (in most cases) you are a citizen of that state whether you like it or not.

British citizen or British subject?

It’s also worth noting that the very concept of citizenship is continental European in origin (in the modern sense mostly via the French Revolution, though the idea does pre-date it) – and a very recent introduction to Britain. It’s a word that entered English via the Old French citeain, itself derived from the Latin civitatem.

Indeed, until the aforementioned 1948 British Nationality Act, there was no such thing as a British citizen – we were all merely subjects of the crown.

This, in effect, meant that we – as British subjects – had obligations to the state, but few rights.

This is because, contrary to popular belief in the power of the likes of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, the one constant in British constitutional law over the last three centuries has been that no parliament can bind another. This includes binding future parliaments by legislation granting rights to the people – because, again contrary to popular belief, in Britain the people have never been sovereign – first sovereignty lay with the crown, now it lies with parliament.

This means that the “right” of the people of Britain to vote, to a fair trial – even to life – are all down to the whim of parliament, and can be withdrawn at any time. (For more on this, see this post on the nature of sovereignty, this post on the nature of the English/British constitution and how “rights” fit into it, and this Wikipedia article on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty.)

The benefits of EU citizenship

In contrast, EU citizenship has conferred rights with no obligations.

With the introduction of EU citizenship, for the first time in Britain’s history, British citizens/subjects have the right to vote, to free movement, and so on, rather than just the privilege – we are no longer dependant upon the whim of parliament.

In return, the EU asks nothing of us. We are not directly taxed by the EU, nor does the EU directly pass any laws that we have to obey – all go via the governments of the member states, all of whom can challenge every stage of the process. Nothing the EU does is done without the approval of the (elected) governments of the member states – and therefore our obligations remain to the member states we are citizens of, and not to the EU as an entity. This may sound like pedantry, but in a legal sense it is a vital distinction.

It is the ongoing power that the British parliament has to abolish any and all freedoms it so desires that is one of the key reasons why I became in favour of some form of supranational body that could, for the first time in the country’s history*, serve to guarantee the freedoms that we have all come to assume are our right.

EU citizenship being layered on top of national citizenship finally guarantees all British citizens the right to appeal to a court that lies beyond the British government’s jurisdiction, whereas before we were stuck with the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal – a House of Lords and a justice system presided over by the Lord Chancellor, a member of the same government against whose abuses we would have been appealing.

Because the trouble with the concept of sovereignty is that is implies *absolute freedom of action*. In a state where the people are sovereign – as in the US with its “We the people” opening to the Constitution and specific clarification of the people’s rights in the 9th Amendment – this means that the people are (legally) secure from governmental abuses of power. In a state like Britain, where parliament is sovereign, it means that the people have no guarantees about anything – no rights, only privileges, and no legal recourse if those privileges are withdrawn. (The same problem faced parliament in the 17th century – they wanted certain guaranteed rights, but the monarch was sovereign. The problem was only solved by a series of bloody civil wars, the constitutional shift finalised by a foreign invasion.)

The concept of EU citizenship rectifies that historical/legal/constitutional anomaly – this time without a drop of blood shed.

* The UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights (1950) were steps in the right direction, but the former is not legally binding, and the latter’s failings are made clear by the fact that the likes of Russia and Georgia are signatories, despite routinely breaching their citizens’ declared rights under the Convention.