Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Life After Brexit: can we still be EU citizens?

In a blog on 9 March, I asked, "So how would Brexit affect you?" 

I said that quite apart from the economic and geopolitical reasons for the UK to remain in the European Union, the loss of EU citizenship would be a big deal for me personally. If the worst happened, I went on, might it be possible for us dismembered, forcibly exiled Europhiles to be reattached to the EU in some other way? Might other EU member states make provision for British people who do not want to be deprived of their European citizenship? I'm thinking of a special kind of dual citizenship we might call UK Plus whereby we could elect also to become honorary citizens of Germany, France, Ireland (Scotland one day?), any member state that valued its own links with British people and didn't want to sever ties any more than many of us do. And might the European Parliament pass some enabling legislation to make this possible?

At the time, I hadn't seen this question discussed anywhere. However, since June it's been actively debated in the press and on social media. A rush of UK citizens of Irish descent have been pursuing possible dual Irish citizenship alongside their British. Descendants of German Jewish parents exiled as a result of the Nazi holocaust are making similar approaches to the German Embassy (I think I would qualify for German citizenship under that rubric). If you are willing to invest a sufficiently large sum in business in those countries, I believe you can obtain citizenship in Cyprus or Estonia. Any of these paths would confer European citizenship de facto. 

However, there's something a bit artificial about acquiring citizenship in another EU country when your relationship with it is historical rather than actual. Still more does it feel odd when you're in effect buying it through a business transaction. There's a whiff of pretext in going down that road. It's not that I am really interested in becoming a German, a Cypriot, an Irishman or an Estonian for its own sake. It's a convenience for the sake of protecting my EU citizenship. For most of us, there would be no other reason for embarking on this quest. For myself, I am perfectly content to be British and don't hanker after any other nationality. 

But for more than four decades, UK citizenship has meant "British-in-the-European-Union". To belong to the one is to belong to all. It means being connected not just to an island but to a continent with its larger relationships and possibilities. Maybe many of us haven't fully appreciated how much it has formed and shaped us, what a privilege it is until it is taken away. (Though I also have to say that being a second generation holocaust survivor has perhaps given me a strong sense of European identity, something I've felt consciously ever since childhood.) 

So I am not alone in welcoming the initiative of Charles Goerens, a longstanding Democratic Party MEP from Luxembourg. He has written an article in the Independent arguing for what he calls "associate citizenship" of the European Union. He says: Among the powerful emotions provoked by the referendum – anger, regret and denial – was a sense of bereavement. Many British people consider themselves European and value their European citizenship, which struck a chord with me....It is for this reason that I drafted an amendment to a draft report...on possible changes to 'the current institutional set-up' of the European Union. The idea is simply to guarantee those who want it some of the same rights they had as full EU citizens, including the right of residence in the EU, and to be able to vote in European elections and be represented by an MEP.

His argument is that in current treaties, EU citizenship is already recognised as being different in kind from citizenship of a nation state. It's additional, and its privileges and responsibilities are not the same. So it ought to be possible to extend its meaning to include individual citizens of non-EU states (maybe restricting it to former EU states whose populations were therefore deprived of EU citizenship when they left) to enable them to continue to be connected to and represented in the Union if they wished to. This would in no way compromise national citizenship. But associate EU citizenship would allow the benefits of EU membership to continue to be enjoyed such as freedom of movement, access to health care and the right to reside in EU countries. 

In my March blog, I spelled out why I did not want my EU citizenship stolen from me. Yes, of course I have hugely valued the opportunities it has given to us and I think I can say I have personally taken advantage of them. More important is what the UK's membership has meant to our nation, our continent and our world. A Europe with the UK as a committed leading player could have done inestimable good in a world that even in the short months since the Referendum has become more and more uncertain and unstable. I still can't quite believe we have been so self-interested and foolish as to throw it all away. But we are where we are. There is no point in endlessly chewing it over, even though I am not going to allow it to be said that the vote supplied a mandate that was "clear", "decisive" or "overwhelming", all epithets in the government's rhetorical knapsack that are patently misleading and false.

So here's why I would willingly pay the membership fee ("no taxation without representation!" and vice-versa) to remain a citizen of the EU. It comes down to three things. 

First, it's about identity. The historical and cultural roots of our nation are inextricably European. Europe is where we belong and Europe is where we should remain. The EU is not a perfect realisation of what it means to be European, but it's the best we've got. We should not forget its achievements, for it has served the continent well since the last war, and given us aspirations to try to build a better world (yes, that phrase so maligned by the Prime Minister seems more appropriate than ever in these troubling times: who with any feeling for our common humanity would not want to be a "citizen of the world"?). If we don't securely mark our identity as Europeans, we shall be soon find ourselves relegated to the deserved status of little Englanders (for the Scots and Irish have shown a lot more sense over the EU than we English have). 

Secondly, it's about protest. Like so many, I've been sickened by the tone of so much of our political discourse during and since the Referendum. Crude nationalism. isolationism and xenophobia are only three of its more unpleasant features. We are all aware of how uneasy and afraid some - maybe many - of our immigrant friends and colleagues are feeling, whether they come from EU countries or beyond. Populism is fuelling resentments and hatreds as we have all seen to our alarm. So in the era of post-truth politics, I want to protest against this corrosion of what we used to call the British values of tolerance, understanding and decency. Brexit will be one more sign that we care less about our neighbour than we once did. For me, to hold associate EU citizenship would be an important symbol of wanting to follow a more excellent way. 

Thirdly, it's about resolve. Many of us want to signal our continuing commitment to the European project but aren't sure how to do this without appearing like backward-looking "Remoaners" who do not recognise a democratic vote, however narrow.  So here's a way of doing it. We may not be able to have our (blue?) passports carry the name European Union on the cover. But citizens of that Union is what we would continue to be. Every passage across a European border would remind us of it. And it would recall us to what we hold in common, and how our lives are infinitely richer and healthier and safer if we make common cause with our fellow human beings in our neighbourhood family of nations and beyond. EU citizenship along these lines would help us step out of the echo chamber of our island and live in a bigger community of giving and receiving in relationships of collaboration and trust. It would keep alive our wish to go on fighting for social justice, conserving the environment and defending the rights of others. With associate citizenship, we would continue through our vote to influence the European Union in these ways in the future. 

We are all at home with what I call "double belonging". There's nothing mysterious about being British as well as English (or Scots or Welsh). Many people hold dual citizenship of another country. Associate EU citizenship is simply an extension of a familiar idea. It's not ideal. Far better would have been for our country not to turn its back on the EU in the first place. But it did, and the arguments are over. We are living in a new reality now. But among the 48% of us who wanted to remain in the EU, there's a growing head of steam for keeping the European dimension alive in whatever way we can. Here's an idea about how that could mean something. It's worth exploring. 

And by the way, if you're wondering if this idea is somehow "unpatriotic", I believe our citizenship of our own nation will benefit too. Every belonging, every attachment, every pledge of loyalty is the better for having a larger context. We love our island home. But it's not all there is to being British. In our history, the seas around us were the highways that connected us with the peoples who lived across them. That's the metaphor to hold in mind - belonging, not separation. It's as true now as it's ever been that "it is not good for human beings to be alone".

1 comment:

  1. Well, all of that is true. And I particularly deplore the increase in racist attacks and abuse. And I did vote remain in the end, but mostly because I didn't want Boris as Prime Minister, which is what his campaign was all about. But you don't mention at least one thing that matters a great deal to me, EU corruption. The financial fiddles they work. I'm not saying we don't do things that way here, we do. But I don't want to actually walk in and join an organisation like that. They need to sort themselves out before I feel like giving them any more of my money. I don't have a choice as far as British taxation is concerned, but I'm not volunteering for more in those circumstance.

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