Why will the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU not go away? In the last few months, since it became clear that the British drive to exiting the EU was unstoppable, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen positing this as some kind of answer.
I understand the appeal. In 2003, I waited with many others in a very crowded bar in Kraków to learn the result of the referendum on EU accession. I remember vividly the cheers of relief that accession would go ahead the following year. For many, that day, and the accession day itself, marked a return to Europe – if Poland had ever left. The national anthem records the March of troops in the Napoleonic wars “z ziemi Włoskiej do Polski”: from the lands of Italy to Poland. A series of events that began with the German and Russian invasions in 1939 had finally entered a new phase. One which promised to fulfil the dreams of 1989: that Poland could be a liberal democratic member of “the European club”.
In 2004, on the first day of membership, many of us watched the news reporting on Poland’s new “second capital” in Brussels. Even through the blur of a hangover (it was a very good party) I could feel the optimism.
Time has not been kind to that optimistic vision of Polish society, which will be the subject of a future piece. But it should remind us that membership of the EU can exert a powerful hold on the imagination of those denied it, and that many of those EU citizens whose future residency in the UK is now uncertain understand far better than we do why the EU is important. For us (ironically) the Polish poem of exile, Pan Tadeusz, may describe our plight:
“Lithuania, my country, thou art like health; how much thou shouldst be prized only he can learn who has lost thee. To-day thy beauty in all its splendour I see and describe, for I yearn for thee.”
But we need to recognise that the EU isn’t a state. It can’t issue passports: only member states can do that, though the words “European Union” remind holders that collectivities come in different sizes. If we are to make the best of this awful mistake, we need to be clear what we are trying to hang on to.
We also need to be clear that some sort of boutique accommodation with reality for Remainers isn’t on offer. This is happening and we can’t engage with the facts if we are pursuing this kind of fantasy.
Secondly, we need to stop and think quite carefully about the idea of citizenship. Asking governments to create a lesser form of citizenship is open to abuse by issuing governments. What if the sentimental desire for Britons to try and deny the realities of this situation opened the door for them to decide that migrants and refugees could only apply for these kinds of documents? Do we want our own government to devise such a scheme?
It is an unfortunate coincidence that Britain’s exit from the EU is formalised in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day. The stripping of German citizenship from Jews was a fundamental attack on their rights, which made all the others easier to frame and justify in law. We should not be rushing to create second-class citizens, but instead insisting on the fullest citizenship for all, in the widest possible collectivity.