Society Debates

Immigration: Why Europe needs semi-citizens

2 August 2010
Corriere della Sera Milan

Phew. A naturalisation ceremony in Macon, France.
Phew. A naturalisation ceremony in Macon, France.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to revoke the citizenship of naturalised felons has catapulted the immigration issue back onto the political agenda. Even as governments seek to adjust their legislation to an ever-changing situation, the EU ought to extend European citizenship to immigrants so as to make up for the inadequacies of the existing system.

A few days ago, after a series of clashes between immigrants and police, Nicolas Sarkozy announced a draconian revision of French naturalisation rules. Any naturalised foreigner who threatens the life of an officer of the law should lose their citizenship, he declared, prompted a chorus of protests, even in Italy where there has been a wave of "anti-immigrant" rhetoric. But it should be remembered that French (like English) law provides for revocation of citizenship in certain cases even if that provision is never actually enforced. In fact, over the past decade, France has actually stood out for its soft approach to citizenship, with more than a million new naturalised citizens, almost as many as in Germany, and ten times the figure in Italy.

Revoking citizenship is obviously a very touchy issue, even more so in race terms than on the legal level. Nonetheless, it needs to be assessed within a wider framework of a serious "citizenship policy” that fits the new European context. Traditionally, the naturalisation of “foreigners” has been based either on so-called jus sanguinis (i.e. parents or ancestors were “nationals” – the typical German approach) or jus soli (by birth on national soil, as is the case in the US). In the wake of the huge influx of immigrants over the past two decades, these criteria no longer hold water. What is the point in naturalising, based on “ties of blood”, someone who was born and lives abroad and has no other connection to the motherland? And why refuse to naturalise a foreigner (or make him wait almost indefinitely) if he was born abroad but is well integrated into his new country?

Quasi-citizenship

A serious citizenship policy today should be based on new criteria: essentially, residence (jus domicilii), subject to a series of “filters” attesting to the candidate’s degree of integration and willingness to integrate (school attendance, steady job, language skills and so forth). Naturalisation should no longer be seen as a one-off event, an irreversible change of status according to blanket criteria, but more as a gradual process, replete with financial incentives and “fast-track” processing, especially for minors.

Another guideline concerns the very definition of citizenship. Here, too, it seems advisable to get beyond the cut-and-dried divide between citizen and foreigner and allow for intermediate categories like “quasi-citizenship”. The rights conferred by these categories could be connected up to entitlements in the country of origin (particularly social security and health insurance), thereby facilitating various forms of “commuter citizenship” too. Take for example an Indian doctor who wants to work six months a year in a European hospital.

One of the prickliest political issues of our day

The Commonwealth nations have come up with the term "denizenship" for various forms of quasi-citizenship. The institution of EU citizenship can already be deemed a form of denizenship: it confers rights on nationals of any member country that can be exercised anywhere in the union. For the time being, EU citizenship is “second-class” to national citizenship. But with the Lisbon Treaty now in place, there is nothing to bar its use as an alternative or preliminary status for non-EU immigrants who satisfy certain prerequisites. In such a framework Sarkozy’s proposal of revoking the citizenship of convicted felons would be of lesser symbolic enormity and greater practical efficacy. “Good conduct” would become one of the main selective filters, possibly remaining operative even after a foreigner is fully naturalised.

Immigration is one of the prickliest political issues of our day. According to opinion polls in many countries, the majority of the electorate are anxious about their security. And in the latest European elections, the xenophobic parties made inroads everywhere. There is a very real threat of spiralling ideological polarisation, not only among "native" populations, but also among “foreigners”, as is already occurring in France. We know European economies and welfare systems can no longer do without immigrants. We also know that a great many “regularised” foreigners (with a growing number of children) live in our midst and are fully assimilated into our society. Not only is integration possible, it is to everyone’s advantage. A new citizenship policy can go a long way toward facilitating the process and containing the threats of dangerous radicalisation.

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