Typically when asked ‘who is responsible for setting citizenship rules’ there are two general answers that fall out. On the one hand we might hear ‘the government is responsible for setting down citizenship regulations,’ and on the other we might hear ‘the people are responsible for establishing membership guidelines.’ The latter explicitly locates power in the hands of the people, whereas the former recognises legitimised political bureaucracies and machinations are responsible for citizenship. In this post, I want to briefly look at some of the processes and theoretical discussions surrounding citizenship and immigration, and in particular how they relate to ‘Fortress Europe’ and a recent British controversy surrounding citizenship tests.

The Boundaries of Citizenship

Western nation-states have developed around liberal conceptions of citizenship. As a consequence, citizenship is associated with a particular legal status that requires members to fulfill a set of legally enforceable requirements. These requirements can include holding a certain amount of money, it may involve active participation as a citizen (i.e. remaining active in communities that one is being naturalised by volunteering, being active in local politics, etc), or being born in a geographic area.

As a citizen with certain rights and obligations you are separated from others who lack the particular distinctive character of your citizenship. While this is, at first, a fairly clear matter that seems uncontroversial, it becomes slightly more complicated should you approach constitutional rights, and the possibility of citizenship, from the framework of critical theory (in particular critical constitutional theory that finds its roots in Habermasian political theory). Omid A. Payrow Shabani has opened a line of dialogue surrounding this issue in his recently published article “Cosmopolitan Justice and Immigration: A Critical Theory Perspective” (Link; leave a comment if you don’t have access to the journal and are interested in the article).

In his article Payrow Shabani argues that immigration law and constitutional law have been kept separate and operate in tension with one another. Liberal democratic constitutions have been developed so to be inclusive – where citizenship is offered on legal, rather than ethnic, grounds it is theoretically possible for anyone to become a citizen. This was essential to overcoming the problem of legitimization, insofar as without an inclusive metric foreign aliens could not participate in lawmaking and thus could not perceive themselves as the authors and addressees of law.

When approaching immigration and citizenship from statist lines, when we evaluate whether the alien accords with legal definitions that have already been established rather than by evaluating their prospects of membership according to tenants of the constitution, we ‘moralise the border’. This involves affirming that “a democratic polity has a one-to-one relationship with a specific geographical territory” (Payrow Shabani, 93). This one-to-one relationship between membership and geography can be overcome by reevaluating constitutional preambles, where instead of asserting ‘We, the people’ as a reference to the present members of a geographic space a universalised (and legally open) signatory is asserted as the document’s author. This openess at the constitutional level would necessitate shifting immigration and citizenship issues to a constitutional level, to the highest level of the nation-state. This legally provides non-citizens with voices, letting them participate in the country they are seeking entry into, and establishes an essential dialogue between present full– and potential-members of the nation-state without denigrating the latter group.

Presently, the boundaries of citizenship are established around geographic territories, divorced from constitutional openness, and resistant to dialogue with foreigners. Let’s turn to the EU to elucidate on why the present method is unappetising and, ultimately, morally reprehensible.

Fortress Europe and British Citizenship Tests

The European Union is often referred to as ‘Fortress Europe’ because of the incredible borders that it is trying to establish to prevent influxes of immigrants. The Medlilla border fence, Ceuta border fence, Lampedusa permanent immigrant camp, not to mention mine fields along the Greek border with Turkey, inhospitable climates of the Sahara, and dangers accompanied with travelling through Chad, Libya, Niger, and Sudan are all aspects of Europe physical fortifications. They are buttressed with harsh illegal immigration laws and increasingly hardened immigration and naturalisation processes.

An element of that hardening can be seen in Britain, where the following proposals are being made:

  • Raising visa fees for a special “transitional impact” fund
  • More English language testing ahead of nationality
  • Requirements to prove integration into communities
  • Increasing how long it takes to become British

These modifications will lead to a clearer delimitation of rights, but strong obligations at each stage of the citizenship process to receive those ‘clearer’ rights Moreover, those with children or elderly relatives will be expected to pay higher application fees. (Source)

Closing the Lines of Constitutional Dialogue

What is missing from the British proposals is an openness to the needs of those who have been, or are presently being, exploited by British and EU forces. There is a moral obligation on the part of the West to assist those who are least well off – those worst off are, at the very least in part, in their present socio-economic situations because of the ravages the West has, and continues to, inflict on them. From bi-lateral trade negotiations between the EU towards African nations that effectively undercut a African nations from assuming collective bargaining positions to refusing to purchase foreign commodities unless foreign farmers significantly alter their modes of production, it is clear that the EU and Britain especially have a hand in the global pot. (And this doesn’t even touch on the legacy of colonisation, or a general Rawlsian (i.e. liberal) moral imperative for those best off to assist those who are worst off.)

However, because members of foreign nations cannot participate in dialogue with citizens of Britain on an equal footing when it comes to immigration they are forced to accept changes of UK immigration law without having been heard from. How can they be genuinely expected to integrate into communities when it is evident that the ethnic-political discourse is already working to prevent them from entering the dialogue? How is penalising those who are the worst off supposed to facilitate legal citizenship, where all are seen as equal participants in the legal process, where all have an equal right to voice their concerns? How are the UK’s constitutional conventions expected to prevent the issues of integration and legitimization if their core function of openness to difference is banished?

We live in a world that is becoming more interconnected and the attempts of to fortify and militarize Europe in order to compete in the global economy while simultaneously to accept the responsibilities that accompany the centralisation of global capital within EU borders, threaten to doom the EU. It may not mean an economic failure – it is plausible that EU actions will create a strong enough wall that it will be near impossible for most immigrants to enter the EU while enabling the EU to successfully accumulate global capital. It may ‘thrive’ culturally insofar as it can constantly experience the births of nouveau cultures. What it will find itself without, however, is the moral credibility to enforce the charter of human rights that that has (arguably) guided some of the most substantial and progressive advances in EU law. Substantively enacting that charter requires more than lip service concerning the rights of EU citizens and the injustices that occur past fortress walls – it requires a comprehensive re-evaluation of immigration law and the divorcement of citizenship from strict geographical boundaries.