GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of Challenging European Citizenship: Ideas and Realities in Contrast, Agustín José Menéndez and Espen D. H. Olsen


European citizenship: points of comparison

Cecilia Bruzelius, University of Tübingen

If citizenship is an essentially contested concept, then EU citizenship must be one of its most contested sub-categories. Challenging European Citizenship: Ideas and Realities in Contrast is the most recent account offering a take on the nature, development, and consequences of EU citizenship. It is a predominantly legal analysis, which distinguishes itself from the many other existing legal studies of EU citizenship, first, through its effort to situate legal change in broader socioeconomic contexts and, second, by being conceptually transparent. The book offers an explicit definition of citizenship and a corresponding analytical framework against which EU citizenship can be assessed and compared,[1] something that seems often to be missing in legal analysis. The authors succeed in bringing together a wide range of case law and policy within their citizenship framework to provide an elegant synthesis of the evolution of EU citizenship. The reader will also appreciate that the authors do not conclude with a gloomy summary of all what is wrong with EU citizenship, but with suggestions for ways to both challenge negative developments tied to this notion of citizenship and safeguard positive achievements. The book offers many excellent discussions of familiar yet ever so relevant topics – such as a critical and convincing take on the concept of ‘market citizenship’ (pp. 61-63) – and will unquestionably be a valuable resource for EU and citizenship students and scholars.

In the following, I would like to pick up on two interrelated issues that I hope can be constructive for further clarifying some central strands of the book and for the broader debate on the past, present, and future of EU citizenship. This relates, first, to the conceptual framework that the authors’ employ, and second, to the role of free movement in relation to citizenship.

The first issue probably does not come as a surprise, as it relates to the contested definition of citizenship. I have just pointed out that a strength of the book is the authors’ efforts to be explicit about their understanding of citizenship. Nevertheless, the adopted definition seems to bring some analytical limitations. The authors define citizenship as ‘full membership in a polity’ (p. 23), and largely employ a republican understanding of citizenship, whereby the concept cannot be decomposed to individual facets (e.g., identity or rights), but must be viewed as a complex relationship between persons and political community in a self-governing polity. The authors further spell out the content of full membership in relation to what they call ‘Democratic and Social citizenship’, namely the ‘regulatory ideal… that Member States of the European Union are said to realise’ (p. 31). Their definition of citizenship in other words refers to post-war European national citizenship even if not ‘to any specific model of national citizenship’ (p. 38).The conceptual frame used to assess EU citizenship in other words relies on a mix of ideal theory and a historically contingent type of citizenship.

The authors write that they want to leave the question of whether EU citizenship is a form of (full) citizenship (or not) open (p. 37). Yet the premises pre-empt the conclusion. When the baseline category is a definition of citizenship that relies on the national version thereof, it cannot come as surprise that EU citizenship does not qualify as full citizenship. The EU is, as we know, not a nation state. In fact, with the book’s definition of citizenship, it is difficult to see how EU citizenship could ever classify as ‘full citizenship’ unless the EU changes its polity form and transforms into something that resembles much more a European post-war nation state. For example, only if the EU were to develop into a full-blown welfare state (as we only know it at national level) legitimately, could it ensure welfare for all mobile EU citizens without challenging national redistributive policy (p. 172).

At the same time, such transformations might not solve all issues. Though the authors describe democratic and social citizenship as a ‘regulative ideal’ (p. 35), the degree to which this ideal has been realised seems at times overstated – and hence also the degree to which EU law is challenging national achievements. Social rights are a case in point. Though civic, political, and social rights were supposedly indivisible in the democratic and social post-war state and the corresponding form of citizenship tied to equal rights for all (p. 35), some EU Member States have for much of the post-war era not provided public welfare schemes that guarantee an unconditional social minimum. Similarly, and forestalling my points on free movement below, the many young people who have left Eastern and Southern Europe in the past one and half decade have done so for lack of opportunities in their counties of origin. Many of these Member States have never made any real effort to create unemployment programs or carry out labour market reforms that would offer young people the opportunity to stay (Kureková, 2013; Michnón, 2019). In other words, the inadequacy of social citizenship at the national level has ‘pushed’ citizens to leave. It is moreover difficult to see how this can be attributed to the failures of EU law, especially considering its lack of competency in this policy area, for I disagree with any claim that social policy has largely ceased to be a national competency (p. 186).

Another limitation resulting from assessing EU citizenship in relation to national citizenship is, as Rainer Bauböck (2015) has put it, that national citizenship is constitutive of EU citizenship and therefore cannot serve as the key point of comparison. I was in this regard surprised to see that the authors, despite their stress on the importance of history and situatedness, did not engage with the literature that compares EU citizenship with other historically contingent forms of citizenship to which it approximates much more closely rather than 20th century nation state configurations of citizenship. I am thinking specifically of federal forms of citizenship (Maas, 2017; Schönberger, 2007).[2]

Attention to the multilevel constructions of citizenship (rights, duties, identity) that are characteristic of federal forms of citizenship (but also indeed part and parcel of national citizenship (Maas 2017; Bauböck, 2015)) raise pertinent empirical and normative questions. First, comparing EU citizenship with historical forms of federation and federal citizenship could sensitise the analysis to time. At what speed should we expect ‘a strong ethos of political membership’ (p. 178) to evolve, and should we consider it a failure that it has not yet materialised? In fact, the calls for EU level action in the most recent Covid-19 crisis suggest a strengthened awareness of political institutions at EU level. Second, attention to the multilevel dimensions of citizenship underscores the distinct relationships between state and person that exist at different levels of government and related questions of what level ought to be responsible for what. Such a perspective would in fact have corresponded with the authors’ recognition that some of the achievements of the EU that have been cast in terms of citizenship are indeed worth safeguarding because they correct for exclusive predispositions at national level, whereas others are problematic because they might impinge for example on rights protected and substantiated at the national and sub-national level.

This brings me to the second, closely related, topic that I would like to address, namely freedom of movement of persons. This is worth zooming in on not the least because it is usually considered the apex of EU citizenship, but also because it demonstrates, I believe, some of the challenges resulting from the analytical framework. It is not entirely clear what the authors’ position is regarding how the personal right to freedom of movement ought to materialise and what its relationship to citizenship is. On the one hand, the authors consider the extension of social and economic rights for mobile EU citizens based on the principle of non-discrimination a valuable achievement, as this has challenged and expanded nationally confined understandings of membership. This they argue, has offered an important corrective to, and even enhancement of (p. 179), democratic and social citizenship by making it more inclusive. That EU citizens do not enjoy the same rights when moving within the Union, as rights are conditional on economic status, is in addition presented as a problem from an equality of rights and citizenship perspective (pp. 109-115).

On the other hand, when proposing correctives to how EU citizenship has evolved, the authors argue that ‘maximalist constructions of the right to freedom of movement’ are to be rejected in order to ‘redemocratise the Social and the Economic’ (pp. 182-186). Freedom of movement, they argue, is problematic for national societies ‘if too many people make actual use of their right… at the same time’. ‘The right to freedom of movement [therefore] has to be properly distributed’ and collectively organised to ‘ensure its effectiveness’ (p. 183). This calls for a specification of the end to which the right ought to be effective. Though not specified, I understand it to be the preservation of democratic and social citizenship, i.e., national citizenship. And yet, making rights conditional on realising a specific end sounds awfully much like one feature of EU citizenship that the authors (convincingly) criticise throughout the book – namely that it has not evolved into an independent status, but into one tied to the different shapes that the EU has taken over time (from an internal to a single market project).

This contradiction seems, at least partly, to reflect challenges embedded in the analytical framework: EU citizenship does not go far enough in guaranteeing equal rights to free movement and access to welfare in countries of destination to be worthy the name of citizenship. At the same time, guaranteeing such rights for all mobile citizens potentially risks undermining national citizenship by challenging national collective efforts, solidarity etc. (p. 172). Unless, of course, the EU transforms into a fully-fledged welfare state, which would effectively replace national (social) citizenship.

To sum up. The points of comparison we select shape our evaluation of EU citizenship. Whilst I agree that there is little use in stretching the concept of citizenship to include just any legal status, I am unsure how far we get by using (idealised) national citizenship as a starting point. None of this is however to say that we should not ask about consequences of so-called EU citizenship for national citizenship, as Challenging European Citizenship: Ideas and Realities in Contrast critically and convincingly does. The book gives us an excellent reason to revisit these sorts of fundamental questions.

[1] Though the authors at times also assess legal developments in relation to the EU’s own policy aspirations.

[2] This is a debate that has further developed since the publication of Challenging European Citizenship: Ideas and Realities in Contrast, see e.g., Larsen (2021); Bruzelius and Seeleib-Kaiser (2020).