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


Realism and European Citizenship

Glyn Morgan, Syracuse University

This splendid book marks a welcome, much-needed realist turn in the literature on European citizenship. The authors’ realism is evident in their decision to focus not on what the European treaties and key court cases say about European citizenship, ‘the proclaimed goals,’ (p. 6) but on how citizenship actually works in Europe today. The authors present us here with a sombre, deflationary account. European citizenship today, so they inform us, is fundamentally economic in nature (‘the four freedoms’) and consequently inegalitarian; it creates internal openness at the price of external boundaries; and it lacks the democratic engagement necessary to yield a civic ethos that can match the nationalisms of Europe’s nation-states.

Through their account of these limitations, the authors conclude that the term ‘European citizenship’ is something of a misnomer. European membership conveys ‘a personal status,’ a set of specific rights and duties but it falls short of guaranteeing either welfare rights or civic participation. In effect, the authors suggest that Europe provides people with only one of the three dimensions of Marshallian citizenship (legal, political, and social) that we find in the modern European nation state. Europeans have a personal legal status, but not much in the way of self-governing political rights or (at least qua Europeans) a robust set of welfare rights.

Given that the EU provides people with only a ‘personal status’ and not the democratic and social-welfare dimensions of citizenship, what is to be done? One answer—that offered by Brexiters and other nation-state nationalists—is to abandon the project of European integration and renationalize the competences currently under control of Brussels. This is not the answer of the authors. Not only do they think that a European ‘personal status’ is valuable—however deficient when judged from the perspective of Marshallian citizenship—but they think that the current failings of the EU are remediable.

In an all-too brief section in the final chapter, they flesh-out their remedies by calling for the reconfiguration of the way in which public power is organised in Europe in order to increase the extent to which citizens can govern themselves, have a relevant say on the shape of society, on its key socio-economic structure, and on their life conditions. While, at the same time, reinforcing equality, not only among themselves, but also in the ways in which they treat non-citizens. Only in such a way can Europeans become European citizens in a substantive, political sense (pp. 181-2).

At first glance, this statement appears to be a call for more Europe—the protection of democratic and welfare rights at the European level. But when the authors clarify the details of their proposal, they allow for a considerable degree of re-nationalisation of democratic and economic rights. They call, for example, for limitations on posted workers, limitations on the free movement of immigrants, and the de-constitutionalisation (and presumably the renationalisation) of various unspecified economic rights. As the authors put it:

we should deny to economic freedoms the status they presently enjoy as the ultimate yardstick of validity of legal norms in Europe. This will allow to redefine economic freedoms so that they no longer interfere with national policies that, while limiting the freedom of movement of capital or the right of establishment, are instrumental in the achievement of wider socio-economic goals. Only in this way can we accord due weight to collective rights and collective goods, which are also fundamental rights positions in the Democratic and Social state (p. 185).

While this sounds somewhat plausible, the devil is of course in the details. People in Europe today will disagree about what counts as ‘due weight,’ just as they will disagree about what counts as ‘a relevant say on the shape of society,’ just as they will disagree on whether they owe duties to non-citizens.

Notwithstanding the authors’ laudable turn towards realism, I want to suggest in my remarks here that the authors’ account of European citizenship represents only a half-turn rather than a needed full-turn. Three topics in particular seem mired in the wishful thinking that the authors detect in the EU legal studies scholarship on citizenship. 

First, the authors fail to consider the possibility that citizenship (understood broadly as the nature of political membership) is largely epiphenomenal, a consequence of geopolitical, economic, and demographic factors. Human beings have organized their collective lives in a variety of different types of polity—whether the medieval regnum, city-states, absolute kingships, Empires, nation-states, or post-sovereign entities like the EU. The quality of political membership—including one’s capacity for self-government, protection from foreign invaders, and rapacious domestic elites— differs greatly in each of these polities. The upside of the European nation-state is nicely captured by Marshall’s account of citizenship; the downside is foreign warfare and geopolitical impotence. A principal reason why European national political leaders supported the postwar project of European integration was to remedy these downside risks. The EU has certainly helped ameliorate the problem of interstate warfare within Europe. No less importantly, the European common market has transformed Europe into a trading superpower. Indeed, there are two regulatory superpowers in the world today—the United States and the EU. In the absence of the European common market, Europe’s individual nation-states would be vulnerable to divide et impera trade policies pursued by other leading economic powers. China and the United States can make life very difficult for a European nation-state operating outside of the protection afforded by the EU.

The gains the EU has delivered in terms of security and power have undoubtedly come at the cost of democratic participation and national solidarity. The EU will never be able to produce and sustain the collective ethos of an historically venerable, culturally-homogeneous nation-state (which fits the description of many if not all of Europe’s current member states). The project of European integration, in short, comes at the price of certain valuable dimensions of citizenship. But so what? There are no gains without loss in life. If the authors are going to persuade us about the merits of the remedial project they sketch in their final chapter, they need to explain how Europe can remain big and powerful and secure, while at the same time becoming more self-governing and more responsive to citizens about ‘the shape of society.’

My second related point concerns the authors’ account of what has gone wrong in post-Maastricht Europe.  The authors seem to place their emphasis upon problems with the treaties and the legal resolution of issues arising from the treaties. I want to suggest that the problems that Europe encounters in the 2000s are largely a function of changes in the global economy and the challenges posed by demography. Tinkering with the treaties will prove wholly inadequate in the face of these changes and challenges. Consider, for example, the problem posed by Europe’s failures to compete successfully in the internet and social media spaces of the global economy. One can gain some sense of the scale of Europe’s problem here, when one realises that there is not one European internet or social media company in the top 20. The largest European company—Spotify—is tiny compared to the American and Chinese behemoths. None of this would matter, if it were not for the fact that these companies (especially, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple) shape so much of our interactions with the media and government. Now it might be noted here that the EU has had some success in regulating these social media companies—more so than the US federal government—but this success is largely a function of the size of the EU market. Renationalising regulation over trade and the economy—as the authors suggest—will weaken the EU’s ability to stand-up for citizens against these companies. Absent this strength—a strength partly born of market size—the EU will prove too feeble to protect its own people.

My third point concerns a methodological puzzle about the nature of their argument. The authors rightly jettison a purely legal analysis of the nature of European citizenship. But in doing so, they open up a set of tricky normative and sociological questions about the drivers of change in Europe.  For economists and sociologists, these drivers will be one or another economic or social factor. For political theorists, the driver will be some value (whether democracy, justice, security, liberty, or another). The authors make a number of recommendations in their final chapter. It would be helpful if they were clearer about the normative values or principles that support those recommendations.

By way of conclusion, let me note one message that future scholarship on European citizenship can draw from this important book. Too often European scholars tend to fixate on Europe as if it is a world in and of itself. People like to think that Europeans acting through their governments or courts (whether at the national, sub-national, or European levels) are the prime movers in the shaping of their society. A fully realistic approach would require the recognition that Europe is an old and relative weak place—more shaped than shaper. The Geist (to put it in Hegelian terms) has left Europe and moved to Shenzhen, Bangalore, and other places to the East.