The ‘selling of citizenship’ is indicative of larger and deeper transformations of our conception of political membership. Globally, it exacerbates inequality by securing privileged access to membership for the super-rich. Domestically, it runs the risk of straining civic bonds and democratic solidarity. Taken together, these developments reveal whom the contemporary market-friendly state prioritizes in the admission line and whom it most covets as future citizens.
That the European Parliament will debate the sale of ‘golden visas’ and ‘golden passports’ on 15 January 2014 is a victory for democracy and a testament to the vital importance of the issues raised by this Forum Debate, with its rich and illuminating contributions.
The ‘selling of citizenship,’ as many of my commentators have rightly noted, is indicative of larger and deeper transformations of our conception of political membership in a more globalized and competitive world. It is hoped that these tectonic changes will, on the whole, ultimately prove emancipatory and inclusionary. Placing a price tag on citizenship is not, however, a step in that direction. Globally, it secures privileged access to membership for multimillionaires who can afford it, while excluding all others. Domestically, it strains the ties that bind us together, which may in turn lead to erosion of the civic bonds and practices that allow a democratic society not only to survive, but to thrive.
The grant of citizenship is, as a pure legal matter, a last bastion of sovereignty. This is precisely what makes cash-for-passport programmes so controversial. They may be formally permissible, but they are nevertheless open to ethical and political contestation. Laws do not only guide action. They also carry meaning and have an expressive function. The grant of citizenship in exchange for nothing but a large pile of cash sends a loud message in both law and social ethics about whom the contemporary market-friendly state gives priority to in the immigration and naturalisation line and whom it covets most as future citizens.
These pressures are felt everywhere, but Europe is unique. It has developed the world’s most advanced system of supranational-citizenship-in-action. In this system, when one member state ‘sells’ national citizenship as a gateway to gaining Union citizenship, tension inevitably arises, since the state’s action in doing so also affects other EU member states as well as the very membership good at issue: European citizenship. For policymakers, there is an unfavourable track record to consider. Citizenship-by-investment schemes have in the past been closed down after concerns about their integrity led to the revocation of visa waiver policies in third countries. The programme set up by Grenada, for instance, was suspended after Canada imposed visa requirements on the island’s passport holders. It is unclear whether similar responses by third countries are to be expected here, but this is a risk factor that must be acknowledged if European member states proceed with their plans to grant immediate citizenship based on payment alone and without requiring grantees to ever live in, or even visit, the passport-issuing country.
The discomfort we may feel toward the mercenary-like quality of cash-for-passport programmes brings additional, hard questions to the forefront: is citizenship merely about rights, or also responsibilities? Could (and should) proportionality apply not only to the loss of citizenship but also to its acquisition? And what justification, if any, is owed (and to whom) if a member state’s action ‘cheapens’ the fundamental status of Union citizenship, in this case by commodifying it?
We are dealing here with some of the most foundational aspects of our collective and public life. The decision to place ‘citizenship for sale’ on the agenda for debate in the European Parliament and possibly the Commission as well is meaningful, both expressively and practically. It will offer a unique opportunity for all involved stakeholders to think critically about the law as we know it, while imagining the law as it could be.
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