EU citizenship on the move: From coherent to liquid citizenship?

June 7, 2021
Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski

The term citizenship has fuzzy conceptual contours as many other contested concepts in social sciences. This applies even more to EU citizenship with its garden variety of approaches. Certainly, EU citizenship is not a fixed construction but subject to change. Some scholars regard it as a chance to leave national citizenship behind and bemoan the dependence of EU citizenship on the member state citizenships. Others stress the liquid and nested nature of EU citizenship, since it is based on transnational mobility and anchored in the EU multilevel polity, thus representing postmodern citizenship in its own right. But is there just one path to the further development of EU citizenship?

Citizenship between coherence and liquidity

The Jean Monnet Centre at the Leipzig University is focused on EU citizenship. Citizenship in general, and EU citizenship in particular, are often not what they seem at the first glance. Both terms tend to invoke a variety of meanings, sometimes even contradictory ones. This does not only apply to the citizens themselves and how they understand their role in a political community but also to scholarship, which has spawned various perspectives on citizenship, often conveying quite conflicting and counterintuitive meanings depending on the discipline, the theoretical perspective, and the normative twist attached.

Against this background, citizenship is what we call a “contested concept”, as its conceptual contours are often fuzzy and subject to change. Traditionally, the concept of citizenship shifts between a rights-accentuated and obligation-accentuated understandings of citizenship, the former being associated with liberal models of citizenship, the latter with republican ones.

The locus classicus for citizenship studies is still T. H. Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class” (1950), in which citizenship is subject to an expansion process to include new types of rights (civil, social, and political) and to an ever-larger number of societal groups. Thereby, Marshall highlights the historical dynamics of citizenship but at the same time singles out a central feature of fully-fledged citizenship—the equality of status. In other words, proper citizens enjoy the same set of rights despite their different class belonging, their socio-economic status, or education.

Nevertheless, according to Marshall citizenship is not only about rights and equal access to them, as these rights do not appear in a vacuum; they are rather anchored in political communities and these communities are in turn endowed with a “sense of community” that binds their members together, “glues” them socially, gives them collective identity and generates citizen’s resources such as solidarity and loyalty.

At the same time, identity, solidarity, and loyalty are not mere attributes or dispositions of citizens, since they need to be put into action, reiterated, and reconstructed through mutual obligations and service to the community. In an even stronger version, citizenship reverts to the Aristotelian understanding of what constitutes citizenship. Here, the citizen is primarily a ‘holder of duties’ vis-à-vis the political community, as, for instance, the holding of political office is regarded as a necessary burden resulting from the aversion to a permanent political class. Even more, citizenship is viewed as the only appropriate way of life for an individual, since people are citizens by nature and they find their human and moral fulfillment mainly in serving their political community. As a result, the political community possesses an ontological and ethical priority vis-à-vis the individual. Certainly, real-life citizenship is located on a scale between the dominance of rights and the dominance of obligations, often including both aspects, rather than only one.

Still, this is a rather traditional understanding of citizenship. In this perspective, belonging to a community and a coherence of identity determine how the citizens act within fixed territorial boundaries of a nation-state. Citizens are not just any individuals or strangers that only happen to live next to each other. They have particular duties to each other, as citizenship is based on a coherent collective construction within and social closure to the outside, as there is a meaningful difference between citizens and non-citizens.

Meanwhile, this strongly bounded and coherent perspective on citizenship tends to yield to more “volatile” concepts of citizenship. In this view, citizenship is about belonging to a realm of interactions, rather than to particularistic national or ethnic communities. Thus, political action is determined less by collective solidarity or loyalty expectations of a bounded community but by temporary and spontaneous forms of political action, which are characterized by “volatile coherence” (S. Seubert). This is in turn determines liquid forms of citizenship, which have become more widespread in late modernity (Z. Bauman). This liquidity or “volatile coherence” of citizenship is closely connected to increased transnational mobility and radical technological change (mainly due to the rise of e-governance and social media) that we have experienced in recent two decades. And this is where EU citizenship comes in.

The moving object of EU citizenship

The scholarship has been struggling with EU citizenship since its very inception in 1992. In a nutshell, Union citizenship is a transnational extension of member state citizenship bestowing additional mobility and political rights on Union citizens. Some scholars bemoan the Union citizenship as an underdeveloped form of citizenship, as it remains largely dependent on member states’ citizenship and includes very limited social rights, falling short of proper citizenship, at least by Marshall’s standards. Others regard transnational mobility as the key characteristic of a rather innovative post-national citizenship. Moreover, Union citizenship can be regarded as recombinant citizenship (R. Bauböck) or enacted citizenship (I. Isin). Both terms fall into the category of liquid citizenship, as they frame citizenship as a realm of differentiated, voluntary, and multi-level interactions.

The recombinant citizenship recognizes various rights-regimes in Europe as a rule, rather than an anomaly. For that reason, civil, social, and political rights can be attached to different levels of the EU polity, rather than be coherently and evenly integrated within one political space. What is even more: the recombinant Union citizenship would even reach beyond the EU itself since non-EU institutions could be viewed equally as sources of rights for Union citizens, for instance, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, or the European Economic Area. In turn, the enacted citizenship attaches much more value to the political acts of citizens and non-citizens. In this sense, citizenship is based on performative acts and claims, in which EU citizens and non-citizens contribute to the creation of what becomes citizenship. In principle, citizenship is “in flux” (E. Isin), as it is determined by spontaneous and contingent acts and claims. As a consequence, citizenship is about a process or a shift, through which individuals by claiming rights—regardless of their citizenship status—create and recreate themselves as citizens.

Where does this road lead to?

Is national and EU citizenship truly shifting from a coherent to a liquid form? This is largely an empirical question, which cannot be answered conceptually alone. Even though we might observe more liquid forms of citizenship, there is also a countermovement. This has particularly been visible since the Covid-19 pandemic entered our lives and the EU member states reacted with closed-border nationalism to it and are currently embracing vaccination nationalism. Still, there were clear signs thereof beforehand.

The new populist nationalism, which had been on the rise in the last ten years, keeps promising that re-nationalized citizenship will solve all social and political problems. Two of the most striking examples was Trump’s wall at the Mexican border and the so-called Muslim travel ban in the US. Other examples abound.

But even this does not represent a linear development. New liquid forms of citizenship develop as we speak. One such form is thought of as cloud citizenship, which allows individuals to enjoy citizens’ rights in the digital space by circumventing the states (R. Bauböck). This is due to the potential of blockchain technology, which can promote participation based on freedom and autonomy, irrespective of the state’s power to grant and revoke citizenship. In its boldest vision, the cloud communities as voluntary political associations replace national communities and generate new forms of transnational citizenship as well as supranational crypto-democracy that empowers individuals to participate on a one-person-one-vote basis in political decisions. Of course, there is a long way (if any) to this rather utopian citizenship. Still, cloud citizenship could be a way to boost the participation potential of EU citizens and overcome participation barriers raised by the member states. Blockchain technology is designed as a peer-to-peer system that is not controlled by any central entity and in which data exchange is not stored in any single physical location. As a consequence, blockchain technology can provide people with a self-sovereign identity, as they are the ones creating their identity and the only ones controlling what to do with it. This truly liquid citizenship has already been practiced to some extent, for instance with Bitnation and e-Estonia projects offering non-territorial forms of political membership.

Against this background, we are likely to see a bifurcated process with regard to further development of EU citizenship including both bounded and re-nationalized versions of citizenship as well as more liquid forms thereof. The question remains, however, what this bifurcation can eventually do to Marshall’s idea of citizenship as equality of status. Can equality of status be maintained as a normative standard or do we need to look for alternative standards, as our societies (along with citizenship) become subject to polarization, fragmentation, and generation of echo chambers of identity?