The unfolding drama over the chemical attack on Russian dissident Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury is causing one of those few moments of almost national resilience caused by the very probable chemical attack on UK soil by Russia or some arm thereof. The expulsion of Russian diplomats, yesterday reciprocated by Russia, serves as a reminder of the diplomatic functions of a nation state, while the actions of international cooperation, in particular by our European neighbours, may reassure us of the alliances and mechanisms that safeguard us in such situations. A welcome (well, very unwelcome) diversion from the Brexit procedures though it might all be, how fitting it is for it to happen at a time with the country in its own identity crisis.
A large contingent of the UK is uncomfortable with what it sees as its European citizenship ending after the UK eventually executes its withdrawal from the EU. Plaid Cyrmu MP Hywel Williams tabled a motion in Parliament on Wednesday last week calling for its retention, insisting that he is ‘a Welsh European, and no government, state, or Brexiteer should be allowed to take that away from’ him. The obvious point that the legal and political process of Brexit changes no geography and removes nobody’s rights to feel as European as they like has been laboured any number of times. Are the Norwegians less European for ordering their constitutional affairs in a way best compatible with their domestic politics and their relations with their European friends? This is unless Mr Williams is identifying himself with the European Union specifically. Fine, he can affix his identity to a controversial political construct if he wants, but there’s really no good complaining when that body runs into distress.
Really, the idea is itself odd. Citizenship of a continental entity is not well defined. Citizenship has always been directly identifiable with the nation state. You can no more be a citizen of a continent than you can be a supporter of the Premier League rather than a team. Citizenship of ancient Rome afforded privileges that distinguished the citizenry from the other inhabitants of the empire and has informed the role of the citizen since. The innovation was summed up in a single phrase ‘civis Romanus sum’ that outlasted the empire itself and will outlast stupid histrionics from backbench MPs; President John F. Kennedy evoked it to celebrate his newly fashionable phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Wrapped up in those three words is the essence of what it means to be an individual and a constituent of something greater. Haemorrhaging the concept may seem convenient at a time when Brexit provokes questions of identity.
Actually it is very important. It is imperative that the citizenry knows what it expect of the state and the rights that it has. Without it, there’s no helping losing what we don’t know that we have. This is why people should be very careful about, for example, the recent proposal of demanding ID for voting. There may be merit to the idea – though to what extent is it a proven problem? Or is it a convenient problem to exist for those who wish to see ID cards implemented? Governments across the Channel and beyond have such measures to steadily loosen the restrictions placed upon the state in its demands of the individual. Hence the ghoulish ID cards that some are actively trying to promote at home. A number of EU states have gone down that sorry road, a journey that should act if nothing else as a warning against European citizenship, which might too easily homogenise identities into a more uniform system.
In fact European citizenship isn’t just some gloop adopted by those who like the idea. It is defined in Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which is worth examining for anyone trying to disestablish the concept of European citizenship. It affords citizenship to any citizen of a member state with the clarification that it ‘shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship’. Hence a case can be made, whether or not it should be made, for its continuity after Brexit. And indeed it is being made by Jolyon Maughan, a QC trying to crowdfund a legal challenge to the interruption of such citizenship. His case represents the most serious effort to maintain such rights among the loosely organised movement of Brits that feel some affinity to EU citizenship and, while Maughan cannot speak for every such remainer, provides a useful window into the reluctance of many to forfeit what they see as a crucial part of their identity and associated rights. It is necessarily a legal case, but one that is by nature cultural too.
Maughan wraps his case in the context of ’the future of the European project’, complete with the claim that ‘in Europe every state is my country’ and a lovely bit of Herculean poetry. So any simple legal dismantlement really won’t do. The legal argument is a proxy battle over ideas and identity, and the separation between privileges defined in international treaties and the firmer ties of national citizenship should be crystallised. Some will find the idea of a true continent-wide citizenship, with the supranationalism that that would imply, very appealing. Fair enough, but let there be no confusion about what that means for Europe, and why Maughan speaks tellingly of a ‘project’. By nature it abhors the nation state as it currently exists. When Guy Verhofstadt, who, far from being a rogue Member of the European Parliament, is the body’s Brexit Coordinator, tweets enthusiastically about wanting a United States of Europe, it’s best to take him at his word. Even with the directionless disaster the government is making of it, thank heavens for Brexit. Citizenship of Europe is a serious ambition.
Nonetheless, there is a difference between citizenship as it is commonly understood and as defined by the treaty. Rather than reinventing the concept, Article 20 establishes a bundle of rights and labels them as citizenship. Inspecting these rights and their qualifications, however, renders the idea of full continuity ridiculous. It is specified for ‘every person holding the nationality of a Member State’, something that the UK will flagrantly not be after Brexit, meaning that, per Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), ’the treaties shall cease to apply’ to the UK. It offers, ‘inter alia’, four rights. There is the right to freedom of movement: something which the UK government has rightly committed to leave, making it difficult to see how it could apply to UK citizens in EU states without reciprocation. There is the right to stand as candidates in European elections – an absurdity for non-EU citizens – and the right to petition the Parliament. There is also the right to diplomatic and consular protection of other member states in third countries in which one’s own country is not represented, which would likely be diplomatically messy. In any event, it all amounts to a status that itself would be no different if labelled otherwise, say as European membership or something suchlike, and does not create a true second citizenship with all the associated obligations. There is no draft to sign, no jury duty to accept – at least not yet. Hence while the principle should not be dismissed as myopic fiction, it is inaccurate to speak of it being stripped away as one would a citizen made stateless by their country.
Whatever form it assumes, the default status seems to be that EU citizenship will vanish for UK nationals. A government spokesman recently stated that ‘British nationals will no longer hold EU citizenship unless they hold dual nationality with another EU member state’. This would help explain the clamour for Irish passports among disgruntled Brits, with 81,287 applications submitted to the Irish government last year, up 28% on 2016. No doubt some of that number have more generic reasons for applying but, unless a wave of Irish affection has seized the initiative of unusually many Brits, plenty will be doing so to preserve their rights of EU citizenship. It’s not for anybody to presume the reasons for someone seeking citizenship, or to lecture them over it, but it is a sign of how citizenship is increasingly, at least in the context of Brexit, a means towards an array of rights, a sort of citizenship of convenience. Perhaps more interestingly, 81,752, a shade over that number, were issued to Northern Ireland citizens.
This represents an unusual complication to the citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland, as affirmed by the Good Friday Agreement, in particular Article 1(iv) of the Agreement between the governments of the UK and Ireland. When signed in 1998, it probably was not in any expectation of the dissolution of either state’s EU membership and the third country status that it would bestow on the departing state. Hence the provision that these rights of citizenship ‘would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland’ is vaguely worded enough to cause further uncertainty, especially written nine years before the formalisation of a member state’s withdrawal via the Treaty of Lisbon’s insertion of the now ubiquitously referenced Article 50 into the TEU. Meanwhile, the apparent impossibility of maintaining a purely nominal Irish border outside the single market needs to be addressed more imminently than a minimally competent and even less attentive political class has so far. It can expect no concessions from the EU, with European Council President Donald Tusk telling the Irish press last Thursday that ‘the EU stands by Ireland. This is a matter between the EU27 and the UK, not Ireland and the UK’.
Clearly, even after the welcome conclusion of Stage One of the Brexit negotiations late last year that formalised a backstop solution to prevent a hard border, there is plenty more to be done. Brexit must work for Northern Ireland – and not only for Northern Ireland, but for all the regions, starting with the four constituent nations of the UK. The appetite for a second referendum among Scottish nationalists will not recede as long as uncertainty lingers over Scotland’s place in the world. The irony of a Scottish Nationalist party that wants to wrest control from Westminster and outsource it instead to a far more remote, democratically opaque European Union is well known. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a genuine and well justified desire for more autonomy in Holyrood. The very principle of the union that has preserved it for centuries is its defiance of zero sum powers: the union acts more prosperously for all than the summation of each would. Why not distribute areas of sovereignty returned by Brexit responsibly? Flexibility is a property that has allowed the Union to endure in a way that, with the secession of the UK, the rigid European Union has evidently not. It may seem distant at the moment, but more successful, happier union is possible. It will no longer partake in the European Union, but its citizens will be no less proudly European, and no government, state, leaver, or remainer can take that away from us.