What does it mean to be a citizen? This is the question posed by a group of British people in the Netherlands, who have brought a case to argue that they can retain their EU citizenship — who knew we even had this? — after we Brexit.
The Amsterdam district court, which is hearing the case, has decided it is too hot to handle and referred it on to European Court of Justice, where it will be heard later this month.
On the surface, this sounds like nonsense. If your country is leaving the EU, surely you can’t this keep its notional citizenship? But lawyers carrying through this case think the obvious isn’t so obvious. The first reason is a series of judgments that establish, roughly speaking, that member states can’t deprive people of their status or rights as EU citizens. The second is a subtle change in language. The concept of EU citizenship first appeared in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, worded thus: “Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union.” By the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon it had changed subtly. “Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship.”
That is, it exists side by side with your Britishness or Italianess, and grants you rights to move and work freely in other member states, to vote in European elections and to have diplomatic protections. Were the lawyers to succeed, it would also mean Catalonia and Scottish succession arguments would still leave their people as EU citizens.
At its heart is a spiritual question of what it means to have been born into the EU, as any Brit since 1973 has. Once born into it, can we be forced out of it? Are EU citizens, a people already? Can an identity be revoked?
Remainers, don’t get over-excited. It is a difficult question for the ECJ to dismiss, after four decades of building a legal identity for its citizens, but as a collection of high-minded judges, it is likely to err on the side of caution. Even if the judges go radical and rule in favour of the Dutch Brits, the Council of Ministers of the member states, many kvetching about the EU impinging on their sovereignty, could then just issue a directive saying this was not what they meant at all.
And it is not easy to see Theresa May agreeing that we could go on being Europeans. After all, if “citizens of the world” are “citizens of nowhere” each of us would be less British if we could stay European.
Good luck to the Dutch Brits in their plucky fight but I suspect it will be Roll over Beethoven, no Ode to joyous EU citizenship.
Jaha’s courageous story crosses cultures and continents
There is no pretending I was enthusiastic about the invitation from my friend Nimco Ali to spend a Friday night sitting in the basement of Facebook’s building in Fitzrovia, for a documentary on female genital mutilation called Jaha’s Promise. How could I, a metropolitan European overloaded with privileges, feel more than intellectual sympathy with Jaha Dukureh, who was born in Gambia, mutilated when little more than a week old, sent to New York for an arranged marriage at 15, suicidal, fighting for an education — and to understand why she lived in such pain? The distance was too great.
What unfolded was one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen, a film about how we can understand each other, across continents, across different experiences.
At the story’s start, Jaha was just another face on a late-night train. By the end she had changed attitudes in her home country and is now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (The same credit should be given Nimco, born in Somaliland, for her work in the UK and across many African countries).
The FGM campaign is not just about an unpleasant procedure: it is about liberty and the values of the Enlightenment. What Jaha and Nimco have done is lead a revolution through reasoned argument against myth and tradition. Anyone invited to a screening should step out of their own small world for an evening — and return wiser, more enlightened.
Civilisations poses a moral dilemma
A prize racehorse, a Titian and a man with a gun are all travelling in the cargo space of a plane. The painting’s insurers have insisted that the priceless Titian, which is going on loan overseas, needed an armed guard. If the horse went crazy and threatened to destroy it, the guard was under orders to shoot it dead.
This story, possibly a shaggy dog’s tail, was told to me by a friend at the National Gallery earlier this week. We had just watched a sneak preview of the BBC’s new flagship series Civilisations.
The dilemma, in a nutshell is what is more valuable — the life of an animal or a work of art created by humankind?
And what, I wonder, would have happened if the painting had been of a horse?