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


Francesca Romana Ammaturo, University of Roehampton

The concept of ‘European Citizenship’ is elusive in nature. Whilst difficult to capture or conceptualise in terms comparable to those of national citizenship, its importance in contemporary European politics has exponentially grown in the last couple of decades. This growth has been aligned (or perhaps coincided) with the European Union’s attempt to recast itself as something more than simply a vector of economic integration between the Member States and, instead, as a global political actor and a beacon and norm-setter of human rights standards (see the debate around the approval and entry into force of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009).

In their book Challenging European Citizenship (2020) Menéndez and Olsen go to the heart of this seemingly stark contradiction between the original economic aims of European integration, and the political ambitions of creating a transnational political community across Europe unified through the creation of the status of ‘European Citizenship’. The authors explore the evolution of the concept of ‘European Citizenship’ since the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) through a reconstruction of the judicial decisions of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) combined with legislation, policy documents, as well as political agreements. The result is an analysis which offers a valuable insight into the genesis and evolution of an ever-changing concept in the repertoire of European politics.

The authors demonstrate how the initial attention paid to the rights of workers migrating across various Member States during the 1960s and 1970s gave way to a new conceptualisation of the role of a common European status. This status was more narrowly tailored to enhance and further economic integration at the price of the protection of welfare and socio-economic rights of individuals. Simultaneously, the authors also argue that the progressive elimination of internal boundaries to facilitate – predominantly – the circulation of capital and the rights of capital holders across the EU throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has corresponded to a strengthening of external borders, particularly vis-à-vis the rights enjoyed by third-country nationals (predominantly understood as economic migrants), as well as asylum seekers, and refugees within the EU. Contextually, the book also traces the crucial role not just of the political institutions of the EU, but also of a more surprising and unexpected actor: the European Court of Justice which has been crucial in influencing, through its judgments, the current configuration of what we call ‘European Citizenship’. Crowning these arguments is the claim that ‘European Citizenship’ is not an adequate term to describe what, instead, seems to be a form of ‘personal status’. This ‘personal status’ has played a key role in the growth of a sense of belonging across the European continent but that cannot be likened to the category of ‘citizenship’ within the same context of a self-governing polity. Ultimately, Menéndez and Olsen call for a recalibration of the right to freedom of movement in a way that does not devalue public goods or subordinate social and political rights (of workers) to those of capital holders.

The book is a fascinating read which provides an insightful historical reconstruction of the processes whereby a specific model of ‘European Citizenship’ has emerged. At the crossroads between legal and political theory, this book certainly does what it promises: it shows the evolution of the conception of citizenship through political and legal discourse within the EU. However, the political and legal dimensions of citizenship are never disjointed from its social counterparts. Engaging with sociological discussions about ‘European Citizenship’, although not necessarily an integral part of the analysis, would have certainly help to contextualise or explore further some of the claims made by the authors, particularly around the limited usefulness of the concept of ‘European Citizenship’ vis-à-vis a lack of ‘full membership’ in a self-governing polity. In this regard, a differentiation between nominal full membership within a polity and substantial full membership would have enabled the authors to overcome their monolithic view of national citizenship as inherently conducive to optimal political, social, and economic participation and recognition of one’s rights.

Structural exclusion, often at the intersection of various personal characteristics such as one’s socio-economic status, age, gender, sex, and gender identity, sexual orientation, ‘race’ and ethnicity, as well as religion (among other factors), severely curtails individuals’ access to rights even for those who are ‘citizens’ within a self-governing polity. Therefore, although the authors argue that the exclusionary practices currently existing towards third-country nationals, as well as refugees and asylum seekers within the EU, de facto prevent the current status enjoyed by European nationals as being described as a full form of ‘European Citizenship’ (and it is instead defined in the book as a ‘European personal status’), it is nonetheless true that even full membership into the national polity is exclusionary by nature – thus casting some individuals at the margins of society for the purpose of creating ‘members’. Asylum seekers and refugees, as well as migrants who are not traditionally considered to produce enough ‘value’ are, effectively, at the periphery of the socio-political and economic fabric of societies almost as a universal rule, together with other forms of marginalization (or combination of several aspects) often grounded in personal identity. The authors briefly acknowledge the inherently exclusionary nature of citizenship towards the end of the book without, however, engaging with these centrifugal and centripetal dynamics regulating inclusion and exclusion of individuals. In this regard, casting ‘European Citizenship’ as not a form of citizenship stricto sensu makes sense in relation to the taxonomic effort to describe it in comparison to national citizenship but does not acknowledge the complexity of citizenship on the ground.

Furthermore, the book only mentions in passing two earth-shaking phenomena that have dramatically reconfigured recent European politics: Brexit and the 2015/2016 ‘Migrants/Refugee Crisis’, combined with the ensuing exponential rise of radical right-wing and populist politics across the continent. Whilst the book is obviously centred on a political and legal theoretical analysis of the genealogy of the concept of ‘European Citizenship’, it is inevitable that these have catalysed a series of changes in the way in which common belonging to the European polity is conceptualised that go beyond the mere trope of a ‘revival to national citizenship’ that the authors seem to suggest. Simultaneously, the perception of ‘European Citizenship’ that emerges from this analysis is that of a ‘European Citizen’ as an ephemeral figure, disembodied and deprived of any specific characteristics, apart from being described as a ‘worker’ or ‘non-worker’. Current debates on the gendered, sexed, racialized (‘white’) nature of European citizenship and belonging, in this regard, could have represented an asset to ground a vision of the ‘European Citizen’ as more than an operational abstraction.

In sum, as an elusive concept, ‘European Citizenship’ is both tangible and intangible. In theoretical terms, as suggested by the authors, the concept may be thin and not necessarily entirely equivalent to citizenship obtained through being a national of a specific country. The authors are right in raising the problem of a tension between the diminishing importance of internal boundaries at the price of an increased policing of external boundaries, as this will certainly represent an enduring challenge for the EU for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the book also aptly describes the dangers of ‘bowing’ to the rights of capital holders at the detriment of the social and economic rights of individuals.

This being said, the current challenge at hand seems to be whether these trends can be reversed and whether practices of resistance by both citizens and non-citizens across the different Member States can play a role in this epochal reversal. Examples of these practices may be those of helping ‘illegalised’ migrants despite the criminalisation of some kinds of assistance or creating transnational networks of solidarity to counter neo-liberal policies. These could effectively contribute to trigger a shift in meaning that is grounded in grassroot action, social movements and civic action, thus countering the process of top-down engineering through political and judicial decisions of the EU that has been so central in European politics up to this point.