The Greek currency crisis has led to much soul-searching in Europe. While the focus remains on currency issues, the project to establish a common European citizenship is also at a crossroads. Membership in the European Union distinguishes Greece from other countries bailed out by the IMF: Greek citizens have a right to work and settle elsewhere in the European Union, and can thus escape the effects of austerity programs with relative ease. Provided their country stays within the European contractual framework, they can do little more than vote with their feet; they are no longer in a position to impose a change of economic policies through the ballot box. Clearly, rights that are usually associated closely with citizenship in a democratic polity have drifted apart in Europe. Political participation is restricted to national citizens; economic rights are available to all EU citizens; and the European constitutional framework is negotiated between national governments.
This seems at odds with a powerful narrative of the history of modern citizenship, first formulated by British sociologist T.H. Marshall immediately after the Second World War. Marshall distinguished different layers of citizenship – civil, political, and social – which were accumulated over time. The ability to enforce contracts was a feature of the eighteenth century, political participation was the nineteenth century’s key achievement, while the right to participate in society’s accumulated wealth was the contribution of the twentieth. By and large, this vision conformed to reality in the “G7” world after the Second World War. European welfare states granted new benefits to citizens, national governments sought to provide all citizens with employment while drawing up more or less explicit “guest worker” programs for immigrants, and the impact of democratic decision-making increased.
In a broader historical perspective, however, this state of affairs appears anomalous and fragile. Regardless of how far back we trace the notion of “citizenship” – to the age of the Atlantic Revolution, the medieval city-state or the classical polis – we find that there is no logical or practical connection between social, political and economic rights. The poor, most likely to claim relief in early modern European towns, were unlikely to be able to vote in council elections, while most twentieth century welfare states linked social benefits to employment.
In the nineteenth century, most continental European states restricted the franchise to propertied citizens, opened their labor markets to most immigrants, and tied poor relief to membership in an individual locality. Even though this encouraged workers to move over long distances to reach more appealing or more steady jobs, it also increased the probability that they would be shipped back to where they came from in old age: adapting one’s legal “settlement” to the actual place of residence was difficult even within one’s country of citizenship; doing so abroad usually required naturalization as a complex and expensive first step.
This state of affairs was subject to criticism. As the franchise expanded, citizens’ demands for the right of social assistance and for measures to restrict foreigners’ access to the most privileged segments of national labor markets increasingly resonated with politicians. Such initiatives, however, were usually more than counterbalanced by the commitment of parliamentary majorities to liberal internationalism and entrepreneurial interest in a flexible labor force.
The degree of national solidarity and suspicion of foreigners that accompanied the outbreak of the First World War was therefore a surprise. It contradicted notions that class or religious solidarities might be at least as strong as national ones, and caused governments to make promises of worlds fit for the heroes, in which social chasms would be, if not eliminated, then much reduced. Yet the outcome of the experience of war was likely to be a state which sought to manage the composition of its citizenry according to abstract principles (‘race’, ‘fitness’, or ideology) and to marginalize, expel, intern or even murder those who did not fit the mold – thus depriving citizens of rights while reaching out to people who conformed to political or eugenic ideals abroad.
While late nineteenth century critics of the prevailing concept of citizenship sought to limit rights to citizens, the late twentieth century trend was to endow immigrants or potential immigrants (like refugees) with greater rights. Thus, social, political, and economic citizenship rights -- which had largely coincided in the 1950s and 1960s -- tended to diverge towards the end of the century. Businesses benefited from increasing opportunities to move capital, manufacturing sites, and jobs around the globe, while migrants lucky enough to make it to wealthy countries without being deported had a reasonable change of acquiring employment and social rights, but remained largely barred from formal political processes.
In the last decade, trends appear to have shifted once again. The permeability of the West’s borders has become a major concern. Would-be immigrants are finding it increasingly difficult (and expensive) to acquire work visas, and, once inside a country, to become citizens. Whether points systems, tests of cultural compatibility, and biometric identification systems will live up to their billing remains to be seen – often, they are all too eerily reminiscent of 1920s illusions that populations can be managed in ways that are fair, effective and yield the predicted results to inspire much confidence.
Within the European Union, by contrast, the experiment of differentiating Marshall’s levels of citizenship continues. Perhaps this return to nineteenth century precedents is a good response to Europe’s current problems. Their side effects, however, remain unresolved. Many Eastern European EU citizens attracted by Ireland’s boom left rapidly after the bust – which may mean that Poland’s welfare system is left to pay the bill for Ireland’s banking experiments, just like Bohemian villages paid a disproportionate share of the social cost of Austria’s industrialization in the late 1800s. This involves risks: Citizens wielding political power may find that the differentiation between economic, social and political rights leads to an unfair distribution of benefits and costs. The EU may therefore soon face a choice between constructing a common political citizenship, recalibrating economic and social rights – or funding research projects on when and why federations typically cease to function.