Can Europe Make It?

European citizenship for all residents in the EU? Let’s carry on the fight

Two stories about Salvini’s Italy explain why our transnational political community of Europe must include, on the basis of a common standard, those third-country nationals who are already part of European society.

Francesca Lacaita
14 May 2019, 1.03pm
Matteo Salvini, Italy's Minister of the Interior and his Tunisian counterpart, 2018.
Wikicommons/ Tunisian Government. Some rights reserved.

Elizabeth Arquinigo Pardo is a 28-year-old Peruvian woman who has been living in Italy since the age of ten. She is not an Italian citizen yet owing to the citizenship law, which prescribes a complex set of conditions and procedures to become one, unless you were the issue of Italian loins. But Elizabeth has fulfilled all the conditions for acquiring Italian citizenship, and has applied for it. She is supposed to wait for up to two years before having her citizenship request accepted or rejected. In the meantime, she has started working at the Milan Police Headquarters as an interpreter on a fixed-term contract for a European agency (European Asylum Support Office), and she does her job to everybody’s full satisfaction, as stated by the cooperative which formally hired her.

Then one day her path crossed with that of the far-right League Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini. In September 2018 the latter produced his “security decree”, which, among other things, makes the acquisition of citizenship more difficult. In particular, it lengthens the term within which the applications for citizenship can be accepted or rejected from two to four years. Four years’ time in which the applicants live in limbo: still foreigners for the bureaucracy, they cannot take up study or job offers abroad, for example, because the continuous residence requirement would no longer be met, or they cannot afford to lose their jobs, because not only would they not be able to fulfill the income conditions prescribed by law, but they would also be liable to be expelled from the country (expelled to go where, if you were born in Italy or have been living there since you were a child?). Not to mention further direct or indirect discriminations signifying your unequal status in the country you grew up in, starting with the right to vote.

But Elizabeth is not going to take all this lying down. She put pen to paper and wrote an open letter to Salvini, and, not being satisfied with his reply, she expanded it into a book. And she went out to promote it, take part in meetings, and telling her story.

As it happened, one day in February Elizabeth received a phone call from her boss telling her without any explanation not to show up to work the next morning, as she would not be let in. However, she did show up the following day (her contract had not expired yet and she did not want to be found in the wrong), and all she managed to find out was that there had been a note from the Ministry of the Interior.

So far neither Elizabeth nor her lawyer has been able to read that note or to discover the reasons behind her dismissal. However, she did receive compensation from the cooperative, which implies her dismissal was unfair. After which, interestingly, her former colleagues at the Police Headquarters (almost all foreigners depending on their work permits, some of them former asylum-seekers) were made to sign a self-declaration stating they were not in any way connected to any political party or association, and that they had not taken part in political events that might be considered incompatible with their role. Elizabeth, on her part, is fighting back and has taken the matter to court. The first hearing of her case is due at the end of May.

In sum, just as Salvini prevents rescue boats from landing in Italy via Twitter, without any formal acts which could be easily and successfully challenged, but with a tangible, tragic effect on people’s lives, so Elizabeth was arbitrarily dismissed by nobody or for nothing in particular, and kept in the dark about the reasons for it in blatant violation of all rules, obviously for the sole purpose of cowing her into submission. Her dismissal and political activism may well impact negatively on her citizenship request. If, as Salvini and others have it, citizenship is something to be deserved, unless you inherit it by blood, then the thing to do in order to obtain it is to give up your right as a citizen – including the right to protest – and behave as a good subject, or rather as an obedient servant. Isn’t it?

Our second story is all about deserving citizenship. One day in March near Milan, a bus-driver, an Italian citizen of Senegalese origin hijacked a schoolbus with 51 kids on board and threatened to burn them alive in protest against Italy’s migration policies. Two boys who actively managed to alert the police and foil the attempted massacre were of migrant background, one Egyptian and the other Moroccan, foreigners according to the law of the land, although they were both born in Italy.

The father of one of them suggested they should be granted Italian citizenship. Did they deserve the Italian citizenship as a reward for what they had done? Sure!, was the general feeling in the country, including some government circles. Not so sure appeared Salvini, who, visibly annoyed at the missed chance to rail against migration, testily referred to some matters about the criminal record of the father still outstanding, said that if the boy wanted to have his citizenship extended, well, let him get elected first. Eventually he relented and the two boys were granted Italian citizenship.

Structures of discrimination and exclusion

For a while, this incident reopened the debate on the citizenship law. It should be changed, said some leaders of the PD (the centre-left Italian Democratic Party), which failed to change it when last in office. The law must obviously be changed, and the sooner the better. However, talks of changing the law for the benefit of "second-generation" kids by introducing a form of ius culturae (i.e. granting Italian citizenship to young people who have completed an education course in Italy) have been around periodically for years now, but nothing has ever come of it.

In fact, the very injustices of the Italian citizenship law (starting with the different required periods of continuous residence according to whether you are a descendant of a former Italian citizen, an EU citizen, or a non-EU citizen, i.e. an extracomunitario), the conditionalities, and the discretionary powers it contains, produce a ready-made hierarchy of merit, differentiation and discrimination which may well hold its own attractions.

Of course it is not only Italy where citizenship laws build in structures of discrimination and exclusion. Several European countries have introduced citizenship tests, diverse in themselves, and sometimes with grotesque effects. You might be required to pledge yourself to aspects of a supposed majority culture, mentality, or national narrative in a way which is not required of the already-citizens. Since EU national citizenship and its regulations pertain to states only, a patchwork of laws and regulations is bound to arise. At the same time, since the Maastricht Treaty citizens of EU countries have enjoyed European citizenship rights, although they mostly become aware of them when they move to reside in another EU country, if at all, as such rights are generally downplayed in public discourse.

In many cases it indeed makes little practical difference whether you are a citizen of your country of residence, the main exception being the right to vote in national elections. Even though some European citizenship rights were shamefully denied during the transition period of newly acceded (poorer) countries and have come under attack in recent years, especially concerning access to welfare and protection from expulsion, they are supposed to be accessible to all EU citizens regardless of their nationality. In contrast, non-EU citizens remain subject to the vagaries of citizenship laws, securitization anxieties, and institutional discrimination, unless they are protected by a "strong" passport or "strong" economic conditions.

European citizenship for third country nationals

If we believe in the development of a democratic transnational pan-European political community, we must no longer put up with such injustice. It is fair to let the states decide how one can become "their own". Conversely, it is also fair to have a European public space equally accessible to all residents in the EU, where all residents equally enjoy the "right to have rights" and are equal political subjects in an EU-wide polity. The first step in this direction must be the extension to third-country nationals of European citizenship rights: the right to move and reside freely within the European Union; the right to vote and be elected in local and European elections in the state where you reside; the right to obtain diplomatic and consular protection of any EU member state in a third country where your state of origin is not represented; the right to send petitions to the European Parliament and to apply to the European Ombudsman. That was in fact the goal of an old European campaign of about 15 years ago, which aimed to include in the Constitutional Treaty then under discussion an article stating that that "Every person residing in the territory of a member state or holding the nationality of a member state shall be a citizen of the Union".

You might be forgiven for supposing this campaign to be the offspring of a bunch of Euro-idealists in the heady post-Maastricht years. In fact, the right of all foreigners to vote in local elections had already been addressed in a recommendation of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe back in 1981. The next step, again with the Council of Europe, was the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level (ETS no. 144) of 1992. The intention behind it was to promote the participation of foreign residents in the public life of host countries at least at local level, given the equality of duties in practice between citizens and foreign residents. The Convention established "freedoms of expression, assembly and association" (Chapter A), "consultative bodies to represent foreign residents at local level" (Chapter B), and the " right to vote in local authority elections" after five years’ residence (Chapter C). This convention has been implemented in a very haphazard and sporadic manner; Italy, for example, has never ratified Chapter C. It is however a major European document encouraging the participation of foreigners as politically active subjects.

In the same year, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, which formally separated citizenship from nationality for the first time, even as it introduced a new discrimination between foreign residents according to the country of origin. In this way inequalities between migrants are created in terms of democracy and participation, and this produces further multiple differentiations of rights, as has been seen, which can be papered over by discounting participation and equal citizenship rights. “What difference does it make to decent people anyway, if they don't have citizenship?”

In those years, a way to resolve such contradictions was seen in allowing third-country nationals to acquire citizenship of the EU country of residence without excessive complication. In the Presidency Conclusions of the Tampere European Council of 15 and 16 October 1999, it was stated:

"The European Union must ensure fair treatment of third country nationals who reside legally on the territory of its Member States. A more vigorous integration policy should aim at granting them rights and obligations comparable to those of EU citizens. It should also enhance non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural life and develop measures against racism and xenophobia" (Par. 18)


"The legal status of third country nationals should be approximated to that of Member States' nationals. A person, who has resided legally in a Member State for a period of time to be determined and who holds a long-term residence permit, should be granted in that Member State a set of uniform rights which are as near as possible to those enjoyed by EU citizens; e.g. the right to reside, receive education, and work as an employee or self-employed person, as well as the principle of non-discrimination vis-à-vis the citizens of the State of residence. The European Council endorses the objective that long-term legally resident third country nationals be offered the opportunity to obtain the nationality of the Member State in which they are resident" (Par. 21).

In 2003 the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) went so far as to advocate a form of European citizenship by residence, when it adopted an opinion stating that:

"The EESC has proposed in various opinions that the Constitution should grant EU citizenship to third country nationals who reside on a stable basis in the EU.

European citizenship must be at the heart of the European venture. The Convention is developing a major political project to ensure that all citizens feel part of a supranational democratic political community. It is time for a new criterion for granting citizenship: European citizenship based not only on nationality, but also on stable residence in the European Union".

Bottom-up mobilisation

This was the period of bottom-up mobilisation in favour of European citizenship by residence. The campaign mentioned above involved at least 124 associations in 11 countries out of 15. But there were also strong pressures in the opposite direction, especially after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. In the end, the European citizenship by residence was not included in the Constitutional Treaty, after all. A significant turning point was the European Parliament's rejection, on 17 January 2006, of Giusto Catania's report. Catania, an Italian MEP for Rifondazione Comunista, had been on the promoting committee of the campaign in Italy, and he had taken up much of its goals in his report. It is clear from the result of the vote and the statements before and after it that the matter was highly controversial and divisive within the European parties themselves.

After Giusto Catania’s attempt, this issue was deleted from the political agenda. It was still mentioned occasionally, as in 2013, which was proclaimed by the EU as the “European Year of Citizens”. In more recent times, indeed, greater autonomy of European citizenship from state citizenship has been called for, for example in the run-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, to counter the threat of expulsion from the EU if Yes to independence had prevailed, or to guarantee the European citizenship to those Britons who wish to keep it in the case of Brexit (see the European Citizens’ Initiative on the Permanent European Union Citizenship).

But in such cases the point is to avoid depriving some people of rights they already have and do not want to lose. It isn’t to guarantee equal rights to those who have been living in the EU but are still considered “foreigners”. There is some debate at academic level, but hardly any at all at the political level. It simply does not appear as a viable goal to fight for.

Let's carry on the fight

The rise and eclipse of the concept of European citizenship by residence is emblematic of the transition from “the age of rights” to an age “from citizens to subjects”. Its origins belong to the expansive and inclusive dynamics of rights: it is to remove discrimination between citizens and foreigners, not necessarily to develop a supranational citizenship, that the Council of Europe prompted its first steps. The establishment of European citizenship with the Treaty of Maastricht, much as it represented a step forward, at the same time created the "non-EU" immigrant, the extracomunitario, who is as such entitled to fewer rights.

Still, there used to be a general awareness of an injustice, back then, which has been lost now. It is difficult to escape the impression that we have relapsed way back the conclusions of the 1999 Tampere European Council, however cautious they were meant to be. Fact is, in the meantime we have become accustomed to a certain reversibility and conditionality of rights, especially those of the "latest generations", i.e. social and cultural rights, not to mention the rights of the "others". Even in left-wing approaches to migration, what is often highlighted and responded to is the helplessness of refugees, asylum-seekers and newcomers, as if they are never going to achieve empowerment through citizenship rights and participation.

It is high time we picked up the threads of this old, just and now long overdue campaign. We must learn again to vindicate citizenship and political participation as a human right which complements and gives significance to our duties, which otherwise would be tantamount to mere obedience. We must give concrete meaning to the transnational political community of Europe to include, on the basis of a common standard, third-country nationals who are already part of European society. We do not have to start from scratch. In the recent past, the objective of an equal foundation of citizenship rights regardless of nationality was pursued by several social and political actors and was discussed in the European institutions themselves. It is not a pipe dream. All the more reason to make it a reality.

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