In May 2013, the European Commission announced its proposal for new EU legislation that would give every citizen of the European Union the right to a bank account. It is hard to argue against any such measure which, it has been reported, would help some 58 million people Europe-wide who do not currently have a payment account with financial transactions, including receiving a wage or social benefits or making online purchases. Yet there was something about this news that also made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Overall, I am a big supporter of the European Union and strongly believe that its institution and development has been instrumental to the maintenance of peace and (relative) prosperity in the region. I am also happy to be a EU citizen and certainly appreciate the benefits it brings – for instance, before I took up Dutch nationality, my EU citizenship (based on my British nationality) entitled me to vote in municipal elections in the Netherlands, which helped me to feel more connected to the community in which I lived. However, as additional rights look set to be attached to EU citizenship, I am struck by just how much protection you can be missing out on today if you are resident in the European Union – and participate in EU society – yet do not enjoy EU citizenship. Moreover, since holding EU citizenship is conditional upon the enjoyment of nationality of one of the EU member states, with every new layer of protection the EU seeks to offer to its collective community comes a further entrenchment of the power of individual member-states as the gatekeepers of nation-state and thereby also EU citizenship.
As always, my reading of such a seemingly innocuous announcement about a future added benefit of EU citizenship is informed by my day-to-day work, which centres on those who do not hold any nationality: the stateless. Today, there are some 12 million stateless people around the globe, of whom several hundred thousand permanently reside within the European Union. Historically, the existence of statelessness posed a significant problem from the point of view of public international law because an individual was thereby left without the protection of any state (in the past, for instance, the right of states to exercise diplomatic protection in the event an injury was committed against their nationals was an important measure for indirectly safeguarding the rights of individuals). With the advent of human rights law came a denationalisation of rights, as human dignity rather than nationality became the basis upon which many fundamental rights were bestowed. Thus, states became bound to protect the basic rights of everyone within their jurisdiction – their own nationals, foreign nationals and stateless people.
While great challenges remain in effectuating such aspirations in practice and this development did not entirely do away with the necessity of nationality (e.g. it remains the basis for the enjoyment of most political rights and for the unrestricted right to enter and reside in a particular state), the common assertion that nationality is the “right to have rights” has become more difficult to defend. The emergence of EU citizenship as a supra-national form of legal membership, however, seems to belie this general trend. Rather than speeding up the process of uncoupling rights from nationality, as might have been expected, the establishment of EU citizenship appears to be having the opposite effect. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to secure the nationality of one of the European Union member states, for with it come greater benefits than even the membership of a nation-state bestows. In other words, while previously a stateless person residing in an EU state and unable to access its nationality was “only” missing out on the rights attached to that nationality, now this person is also missing out on the supplementary rights attached to EU citizenship.
As governments in other regions also take steps towards greater multilateral cooperation, some are taking lessons from or even aspiring to emulate the European Union model. ECOWAS in East Africa and ASEAN in South East Asia are two examples of cites within which supra-national citizenship appears to also be emerging: the nationals of ECOWAS member states, for example – “community citizens” – are entitled to free movement across internal borders, while ASEAN plans to establish a community with a similar objective by 2015. In both of these regions, statelessness is a significant issue. ECOWAS includes Cote d’Ivoire, where tens if not hundreds of thousands are believed to be stateless, while the ASEAN region is home to two of the world’s largest stateless populations, in Myanmar and in Thailand. Thus, many decades after first exporting the concept of nationality itself to much of the rest of the world, Europe now seems to be leading by example when it comes to supra-national citizenship. As already acknowledged, this is a development which brings significant benefits to a great many and can help to foster better relationships between states and peoples. However, it is regrettable to see that this process of forging a new layer of citizenship and protection has not yet had the effect of forcing nation-states to address the protracted obstacles to accessing nationality for their stateless long-term residents, nor has it succeeded in further decoupling nationality and rights. In straight comparison to his or her neighbour who enjoys nationality, the stateless long-term resident of Europe is now arguably worse off than before EU citizenship was introduced. The line between inclusion and exclusion is reasserted and is more relevant than ever before.