Do we really know who can act as a European citizen?

By Michael Saward · 7 May 2013

The new book Enacting European Citizenship does a curious thing: it questions the very ownership of the idea of citizenship.

There is, of course, a continuing complex debate, not least within core EU institutions like the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, about how the legal status of European citizenship can be better known, more widely respected and more commonly acted upon.  There is plenty in the book reflecting that debate and taking it further. My own chapter discusses the new European Citizens Initiative as an effort to encourage European citizens to activate their legal status, to be active European citizens.

But what if acting like a ‘citizen’ – performing citizenly actions, making citizenly claims – is something that in principle just about anyone can do, so that actions and claims are in some sense separate from the legal status?  People who are not legally European citizens can so perform, or claim, and people who are can perform or claim in ways not openly sanctioned or encouraged by, for example, Commission overseers.  And what if we take these performances or claims seriously, putting them at the heart of the concept of citizenship itself?  This is the curious move the book makes.  And to my mind it is a compelling move – it enlivens, pluralises, and opens up to new meanings and possibilities what it may mean to be a citizen.  It brings the politics back in to what otherwise are legally-dominated debates.  The case studies in the book from Latvia and Turkey are terrific examples.

This sort of move is not confined to debates on citizenship, of course.  It can be seen as part of a broad ‘performative turn’ in many areas of social science, where key concepts are seen as having an effective presence in people’s lives by virtue of being done – performed, enacted.  Does the presence and significance of ‘democracy’ depend on constitutional or institutional factors, or just as much on the fact that people invoke it, act in its name, dispute its features, and so on?  Can ‘representation’ in politics exist without a claim that one thing, or person, can rightly stand or speak for another?  Where the performative turn may go next, and what its ultimate influence will be on political analysis, we will have to wait and see.  But Enacting European Citizenship applies it to new territory, at a time when European citizenship has never been under so much pressure in its short life.  It will be fascinating to see how this innovation plays out.

Michael Saward is Professor of Politics at the University of Warwick.

Enacting European Citizenship edited by Engin F.Isin and Michael Saward is published by Cambridge University Press.

About the author

  • Michael Saward

    Advisory Board member
    Michael Saward
    The University of Warwick
    Prof Saward has published widely on democracy, representation and citizenship, focussing on the links between theory and practice. Recent themes include new ways of looking at political... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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