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That Other Disruption: Brexit and EU Citizenship

Willem Maas, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor of Political Science, Public & International Studies, and Socio-Legal Studies, York University

While the world’s attention is understandably focused on the worst pandemic in a century, a different but nevertheless significant disruption is taking place in Europe: the ongoing process of the UK’s departure from EU institutions and processes set in motion by the narrow win by the ‘leave’ side in the 2016 referendum and the UK government’s subsequent determination to ‘get Brexit done’.

In a chapter published a few months ago in a book on the European Union after Brexit, I examine the effects of the Brexit process and potential post-Brexit scenarios on EU citizenship and free movement. Free movement has been central to the European project since the introduction of mobility rights for coal and steel workers in the 1951 ECSC treaty, and the right of EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the common territory has developed as one of the four fundamental freedoms (alongside free movement of goods, services, and capital) that undergird the Single Market. Since the Maastricht treaty, these rights have been enshrined as the key element of EU citizenship, to which some have attributed federalizing aims and which the European court has suggested is ‘destined to be the fundamental status of nationals of the Member States’. The right to live, work, and study anywhere within the EU usually tops public opinion surveys asking Europeans what the EU means to them, and these rights are enormously popular across the EU, even in the UK. Whichever form Brexit takes – hard, soft, simply symbolic, or ultimately reversed (if or when the UK rejoins the EU) – free movement is a significant issue in the process.

The UK has been a key impediment to a more fully developed EU citizenship, but nationalist or protectionist tendencies are also present elsewhere. For example, in 2013 then-Home Secretary Theresa May convinced her interior minister colleagues from Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands to demand new rules to deal with what they alleged were fraudulent welfare claims being lodged by EU citizens making use of their free movement rights, upon which the European Commission asked for evidence of the alleged ‘benefit tourism’. Starting by showing how shared European rights culminating in citizenship are central to the European project, the chapter next considers uncertainties, challenges, and opportunities caused by the Brexit process.

Uncertainties include the form that Brexit may take and how the UK’s relationship with the (rest of the) EU will evolve, how stark divisions within the UK will be managed, and the status and rights of the 3.6 million EU27 citizens and members of their families residing in the UK (with citizens of Ireland the largest group), the over 1.3 million UK citizens residing in the EU27, and others.

Challenges include the status of Northern Ireland and how to avoid reintroducing a border; the need for more coordination in member state citizenship laws and policies; persistent differences in member state social policies and labor market institutions causing ongoing disagreements between EU member states about free movement rules; and the rise of so-called illiberal democracy with a focus on borders and nationalism, against the EU’s aim of superseding nationalism and making borders lose their significance.

In line with the idea that the UK’s absence from decision-making processes may deepen integration by bringing the remaining EU member states together, Brexit also raises several opportunities for strengthening EU citizenship and free movement. The opportunities flow from how Brexit has uncovered and stimulated increased attachment to the EU and the European project more generally; high support for greater harmonization of member states’ social and welfare policies, which would address many of the worries of those concerned about open borders within the EU; and the chance to clarify the relationship between national and EU citizenship - including to face challenges such as investor citizenship, in which decisions of one member state impact the others.

As argued in a chapter in another recent book, democracy assumes a political community, and citizenship is a means of delineating who does and who does not belong to the political “people” – but the introduction of EU citizenship over already-established national citizenships transforms citizenship in Europe into a multilevel phenomenon. Scholars of European integration have generally accepted as an unexplored assumption that national identities are relatively fixed. But as eminent social scientists such as Max Weber long ago pointed out, differences in national sentiment are both significant and fluid: the ‘idea of the nation’ is empirically “entirely ambiguous” and the intensity of feelings of solidarity is variable. We can see evidence of this in the increasing numbers British citizens applying for citizenship in an EU member state, as well as research demonstrating the malleability of political identity and the ways in which relaxing internal borders within Europe generates new socio-economic boundaries beyond already-existing forms of discrimination, such as discrimination against Roma or labour migrants, or incomplete recognition of professional qualifications, or reverse discrimination by member state governments treating their own citizens worse than those covered by EU law. Brexit provides one lens for examining such transformations of citizenship in Europe, but there are many others.


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