Citizenship: the 21st century civil rights struggle?

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

5157077110_608d09e72a_zThe right to vote is considered a cornerstone of liberal democracy. But who wields the franchise depends on who holds citizenship. Securing this prized citizenship is often considered the ultimate indicator of happy integration into a new country; the zenith of the immigrant made-good story.

As Rainer Bauböck, Professor of Social and Political Theory at the EUI argues, “Citizenship is crucial for the legitimacy of democratic states. A state that would exclude a large part of its population from access to citizenship status and therefore voting rights, would lose legitimacy because it would actually subject a large part of its population to laws in the making of which they don’t have any say. It’s a core requirement of democracy to have an inclusive citizenship regime.”

Bauböck, who organised a European Democracy Observatory (EUDO) conference on citizenship policies and norms in Europe and the Americas at the EUI in November last year, believes that securing voting rights for migrants is the new hurdle for 21st century civil rights. “The big issue is migration”, he tells EUI Times. “After the inclusion of women and other populations who were formally excluded on racial or class grounds, the one big population who remains excluded is non-citizens who take up residence in a country. Today, emigrant citizens can vote from abroad in most national elections. The question is then how immigrants get access to the vote in their country of residence: through becoming citizens or through extending the franchise to non-citizens?”

Archives Foundation: Civil Rights March on Washington

Archives Foundation:
Civil Rights March on Washington

But does the right to vote really matter? How much should migrants really care that they cannot tick the box in national elections, especially when they may face other socio-economic inequalities on a more day-to-day basis? “Your voice doesn’t count for anything if you don’t have the right to vote”, counters Bauböck emphatically. “Especially if political parties don’t compete for your vote. It’s the case for migrants today as it was for African Americans back [in the 1960s].”

Bauböck maintains that for this to happen migrants must be seen as valuable by political parties because it is only through established, formalised political channels that their grievances can be effectively remedied. He explains, “It’s never the primary concern or interest of the people out there who are excluded from the franchise, they have other things to worry about, such as access to jobs or daily experiences of exclusion, but for many of these interests it is important that they are seen to be voters who established parties have to compete for. If parties understand that they will lose out in the electoral game if they don’t catch the fresh vote of the immigrants, the recently enfranchised ones, then they will also understand that they need to put candidates on the list who ‘look’ like immigrants; who have an immigrant background and who speak up on immigrant issues.”

The question of migration therefore requires a radical re-think of citizenship practices in the world. Why should people be denied access to the vote purely on account of their birthplace? Is it time to break the link between citizenship and the nation state?

Diego Acosta, a Fernand Braudel Fellow in the EUI’s Law Department believes so. “I think so”, he tells EUI Times assuredly. “That’s what is happening more and more. And that’s clearly what has happened in the EU. In a globalised world where perhaps more and more people move a number of times, where we are more interconnected at many different levels, I don’t see it as a problem that citizenship is not the only way to access rights when you are residing somewhere. You can have other statuses that give you access to the same rights.”

So if more human movement means that it is no longer appropriate to bind citizenship rights solely to the nation state, perhaps we should incorporate citizenship under the broader umbrella of human rights instead? Acosta demurs, “Human rights can be used for certain categories of people in different ways. There are certain rights which regardless of your nationality have to be respected whether you are a national, a foreigner or an irregular migrant. Of course, there is a debate about which fundamental rights should be for everyone. For example, in Spain the right to health was considered a fundamental right. That is also the case in much of Latin America but not in the UK, for example. [But] in 2012 the Spanish government passed a decree saying irregular migrants do not have the right to healthcare anymore.”

Panaromic view of Bogota


A specialist in EU and South American migration and citizenship, Acosta believes that South America is a highly useful model for Europe. “I think South America has a lot to teach the EU, and other regions as well. One really important thing about South America is that the discourse on migration in the last fifteen years has been open. It has maintained that migration is a positive thing; that the defence of human rights regardless of legal status is not negotiable. It’s very important because the moment you start having a negative discourse on irregular migration, that is going to slowly move towards other [migration] categories as well.”

Acosta sees attempts to rigidly differentiate between different types of migrants in order to determine eligibility of rights as fruitless. “As any lawyer will tell you, [defining] who is a regular migrant, an irregular migrant, an asylum seeker, an EU citizen is changing all the time. For example, Croatians on 30th June [2013] were potential irregular migrants everywhere else in Europe. They woke up on 1st July as EU nationals with equal rights. These categories are not fixed. Once you start having this negative discourse about migration, even if it is about only one category, people no longer distinguish between them, since also legally speaking people move from one position to another.”

There is a tendency to consider the right to vote as a battle fought and won, consigned to the annals of history. However, as Acosta and Bauböck testify, given the exclusion of most migrants from this lynchpin of European democracy, the right to vote is a struggle as alive today as ever before.


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