1 Acts of citizenship
At the core of this course is the argument that European citizenship is not necessarily limited to its formal legal status. We will explore how people who are not formal citizens of the European Union (EU), and those who are citizens but on the margins of institutionalised politics, can challenge dominant understandings and practices of European citizenship.
In order to understand the idea that one can ‘act out’, or enact, European citizenship without formally being an EU citizen, we need to turn first to the concept of EU citizenship as commonly understood by scholars and policy-makers. In legal terms, it is often said that the EU citizenship is a derivative citizenship: one cannot be an EU citizen without first being a citizen of an EU member state. The EU cannot by itself grant citizenship rights. As citizens of the EU are first and foremost members of an EU member state, EU citizenship is aimed at achieving a common set of rights, and fostering inclusiveness and a sense of belonging across the European Union. It is a vehicle for developing a common European identity and values.
EU governing bodies such as the European Commission (EC) and the European Parliament (EP) have long promoted active citizen participation in the EU’s political life and sought to strengthen communication between citizens and the EU institutions, especially since the EU is perceived to suffer from a ‘democratic deficit’. This effort is evident, for example, in the Lisbon Treaty (2009), which states that: ‘Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen’ (Article 10). This debate over active citizenship focuses of the decline of voting rates democratic participation and efforts to increase citizens’ participation. An example of such measures is European Citizens Initiative (ECI), launched by the EC in 2010 with the aim of enhancing participatory democracy in the Union. The ECI presents itself as:
‘… the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history. It is considered to be one of the major innovations of the Treaty of Lisbon and enables one million EU citizens to call directly on the European Commission to propose legislation of interest to them in an area of EU competence.’
Non-EU bodies such as the Council of Europe (CoE) also stress the importance of active citizenship. CoE is an international organisation in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe. It was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. CoE enforces the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) through the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It also works with the EU bodies such as the EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship and the European Court of Human Rights.
The ECI may prove, in time, to be a stimulus for active democratic participation in the EU. But there may be more to the question of participation than devices like the ECI can offer. In particular, there are multiple other ways in which groups of both citizens and non-citizens (both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the EU) mobilise and claim European citizenship and in the process, ‘constitute’ or enact themselves as citizens by claiming rights. We use the term ‘constitute’ here to indicate a sociological process through which subjects become citizens in both political and legal terms.
Against this background, the concept of acts of citizenship starts from the idea that citizenship is a dynamic process and that people can constitute themselves as citizens via claims to rights, regardless of their existing citizenship status. Instead of starting from the question of ‘Who is a citizen?’, we ask ‘What makes citizens?’ Although Kurdish people, for example, may not be citizens of the European Union, by exercising their rights to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, they actively constitute themselves as European citizens in the broader sense of that term. This is an important theoretical and political move: from viewing citizenship as a solely legal or formal membership of a state, to interpreting it as contingent and contested.
Let’s look at another example to clarify these points. In 2005, representatives of sex workers and their supporters met in Brussels for a European Conference on Sex work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration. They also presented three documents to the EP: the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, the Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto and the Recommendations for the policy makers. Further, they also organised a demonstration. If we focus on the people involved in these actions, we see that they are a mixture of migrants, regular and irregular, Third Country Nationals (i.e., non-citizens of member states residing in the EU), and EU member states citizens. Because of their nationality, status, or type of work they perform, these groups often find themselves in situations where their ‘citizenship’ is called into question. However, if we put that momentarily aside and look at what they did in Brussels, we can see that their actions are all forms of active political engagement and participation to articulate and claim rights.
What does this concretely mean in terms of EU citizenship? If we look at EU citizenship from the perspective of active citizenship outlined above, then the question that follows is
‘What can the European Union do to facilitate the production of (active) European citizens?’ The concept of acts of citizenship opens up another possibility in relation to EU citizenship as it does not focus on ‘who’ but on ‘what’, namely of what people do. The question then becomes ‘How do subjects, through their actions, constitute themselves as European citizens?’ Asking this question prompts investigators to examine existing and emerging claims and practices amongst both citizens and non-citizens (third country nationals, refugees, illegal aliens) – claims and practices through which they act as European citizens. It also prompts consideration of state practices that deprive them from doing so. Often, we see that subjects that are not citizens act as citizens: they constitute themselves as those with the right to have rights and articulate claims accordingly. We can see this, for example, in the case when irregular migrants and asylum seekers organise against being detained and deported and claim the right to stay in the country.
The key issue then is not to think the ‘doer’ prior to the ‘deed’ but rather to examine the process and the acts through which new actors emerge. The focus is on ‘acts’ rather than actors so as not to prejudge to whom the right to have rights may be due. This approach to citizenship is what we might call ‘activist’ citizenship. Activist citizenship differs from active citizenship. Active citizenship addresses formal citizens and urges them to engage in a range of activities such as voting or running for office to increase political participation (a kind of ‘script’ for already existing citizens to act on an existing set of rights). Activist citizenship, by contrast, brings into focus groups who are not necessarily recognized in law as citizens and studies their claims that challenge the content and boundaries of European citizenship.
Consider two examples. An EU national claiming her right to pension benefits in the Netherlands, where she has recently moved for work after having worked in the UK for 15 years, is engaging in active citizenship in the sense that he/she is exercising rights that already exist. By contrast, we consider a third-country national (TCN) doing sex work in France who has joined the above mentioned manifestations for sex workers rights in Brussels and is claiming the right to move and work freely in the EU as engaged in activist citizenship, in the sense that she is making claims to rights that she does not already have. This notion of a right one does not have can come about in two ways. First, it may mean that a group of individuals may activate or mobilise an existing law that they are currently inhibited from enjoying. Second, they may claim that they should be entitled to it given that others are. If a group such as sex workers are denied making of either of these two types of claims we can say that they are denied their right to citizenship. Similarly, TCNs may have residency rights that may lead to citizenship status.
The idea that non-citizens can act as citizens and can have a say in matters of European citizenship is a puzzling one. In the video clip below, Engin Isin explains in more detail the concepts of acts of citizenship and activist citizenship and their importance in understanding citizenship in contemporary Europe.
Transcript: Engin Isin
There has been much talk recently coming from leading European heads of state that multiculturalism has failed and that there is a need for better integration of citizens and non-citizens. In your work you do not make use of terms such as ‘integration’ but speak instead of citizenship and in particular of activist citizenship. Why this choice of words and what is its importance?
The problem with the dominant idea of citizenship is that it is seen as membership. Once you understand citizenship as membership you begin to think about who is included and who is excluded. Those who are included exercise their rights and fulfil their duties and those who are excluded are prohibited from such rights. While social and cultural clubs may work this way, modern countries involve much more complex transactions and movements to be captured by this membership understanding of citizenship. People are actually or virtually much more connected than being a member of territorially sealed country. People also benefit from a much more complex set of rights ranging from civil, political, and social to sexual, ecological, cultural, and human rights that are not necessarily tied to where they reside or work let alone were born. When we shift our focus from membership to actually what people do to claim these rights, this complexity begins to make sense. Acts of citizenship is a way of thinking about citizenship not only as membership but also as claiming rights regardless of one’s membership.
What is the important then of bringing into focus of marginal groups or non-citizens for citizenships?
When we shift our focus to acts of citizenship we realize the question of apathy and lack of participation that are often lamented is not actually the case for those whose rights are not taken for granted. These people often find themselves in situations that existing citizenship regimes don’t take into account. Perhaps the most visible version of this situation was indicated by the suffragettes or blacks. Being ‘excluded’ from civil, political, and social rights for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both suffragettes and black gained the rights that they didn’t have by claiming equality as well as difference. We may well remember that throughout the nineteenth century poor people we also not entitled to certain civil, political and social rights. If you didn’t have property or property with certain value, for example, you could not vote or run for office. But by claiming the rights that they didn’t have the poor also obtained civil, political, and social rights. All these struggles were not waged without acts of citizenship.
So, this is about making visible the negotiations and struggles that surround citizenship. But how does this link to Europe? Or better, why are we looking at these in terms of European citizenship?
Europe as a project is a test case for the future of citizenship. Being born of the ashes of the atrocities of the twentieth century, it provided a promise, a vision of belonging and togetherness to different peoples whose citizenship were conceived in narrow and nationalist terms. The EU citizenship regime as a derivative regime in many ways betrays this original vision since it makes citizenship dependent on being a national in the first place. But the EU is only one body, though a very important one, amongst many other European institutions such as the Council of Europe (CoE). These broader institutions keep alive a vision of Europe as open and experimental. We see this vision being enacted by those who make claims to these institutions. That’s why we insist on calling their enactments as acts of citizenship and them as citizens.
Let us examine in more detail at acts of citizenship. In the next section, we look into four examples both inside and outside of the EU.