New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The End of Plural Nationality?

After I wrote yesterday's post about taxes, I revisited the the issue of modern citizenship, plural nationality and globalization.  Here are a few of my thoughts:

Citizenship is an odd beast because it is an individual status that represents a kind of contract between a person and a state.  It can be conferred without the consent of the individual either by jus sanguinis (blood) or by jus soli (place of birth).  Think about that:  a child is never asked if he want to be French or Egyptian or American just because his parents were or he was born in a particular place. True, once he becomes an adult he can renounce his citizenship but that is contingent in most places on having acquired another one.  So renouncing is not something that a person can simply decide on his or her own - you cannot wake up one morning and simply say, "I'm not German. "  You must petition the German state and formally sever your ties after having formally created another tie to another country.   Most countries (not all) recognize that their citizens have the right to do this but they also retain the right to put conditions on this renunciation.  Americans, for example, might be very surprised to learn that they are not allowed to renounce their citizenship within the borders of the U.S.  They must physically leave the country and apply at a consulate on foreign soil.

Most people never bother to learn these things because they either never leave their home countries or because, in a world where plural citizenship is becoming very common, it can be a real advantage to have several passports even if one is not actually residing on one of the passport countries.  It appears to be all gain and no pain so why bother renouncing?  A citizen retains the right of return at any time, the right to vote in many cases from abroad and even, in some countries, actual representation in the national parliaments.  On the other, he or she feels free to travel about, build a life abroad, pass citizenship on to his or her children and ask for assistance (limited in reality) at the home country consulate.  That is the perspective of many of us who have chosen to live outside our original countries of citizenship.  We rarely consider how our home countries and its citizens feel about this.  The world is flat and it is our playground.

I think we ignore their opinions at our peril.  All states have the right to determine who is and who is not a citizen and what obligations citizens have toward the country of nationality.  Some of these obligations are legal and some, I contend, are moral.  The legal ones are explicit and yet not well known by most people who move abroad.  In the moral realm they are implicit and are about how homelanders feel their citizens abroad should behave and what their proper relationship to the home country ought to be in an ideal world.   People who live outside their home countries also have legal and moral obligations to the host country and this intersection of duties and responsibilities can be quite complex and, in some cases, contradictory.  Americans who live abroad, for example, are required to obey U.S. law even outside of U.S. territory.  No consideration is given to the unpleasant reality that national laws can and do conflict.  Hard to enforce and yet, as the world gets ever flatter, what you do in Vegas (or Thailand) could conceivably come back to haunt you in Berlin.

It is worth taking a few moments to consider the situation from the perspective of the states and the homeland citizens.  Citizens represent an investment by the nation, states expect some return on that investment and consider their claim on their productive power and the right to control their behavior to be just and right wherever those citizens happen to live. The frontier days of globalization are slipping away.  It will be harder and harder to "escape" as states make agreements between themselves to regulate the flow of capital and people.  National parliaments can and will make laws to police the activities of their citizens abroad and will back them up either through enforcement agreements with other states, by controlling the issuance of necessary documents (passports, birth certificates and the like) and by catching people at the border when they come "home."

How those laws will be made and applied will depend greatly, I think, on the opinions and feelings of people in the homeland.  As a practical matter their numbers are greater and their feelings carry much more weight then those of expatriates.  They can more easily make phone calls, send letters and organize demonstrations or visit lawmakers in their offices.  Diasporas can organize and make their side of the story known but that implies a great deal of organization and fertile ground for those opinions to have any legitimacy and stick.  Where expatriates are perceived as rich, tax-dodging quasi-traitors to the nation it is so much easier for politicians to pass laws to their detriment with nary a word from the homelander population.  Sarkozy, for example, is proposing a tax on French expatriates that would oblige them to pay the difference between the taxes they pay in their host countries and what they would pay in France.  I have spoken to people here in France about this and the consensus seem to be that this is a fine idea.  I have not found one person who thinks it is a bad idea and would raise a finger on behalf of French citizens abroad.

When we move outside of our home countries we tend to fall off the radar of people in the homeland.  Because they do not know who are or what we are doing, the information void can be filled with anything:  pictures of rich expatriates sipping wine on the Riviera or rich retirees sunning themselves on the beaches of a South American country or living a hedonistic life in Amsterdam or just having landed a decent job in a modern country. That the reality is so much more mundane (and much harder then one might think) is not a message homelanders want to hear because alongside their envy of those who have "escaped" to live fabulous lives in exotic locales are their own fantasies of one day doing exactly the same thing.

There is no easy solution to this.  The key, I suspect, is finding a way to demonstrate that the diaspora is, in fact, an important resource for the nation and merits support and not condemnation.  This is easiest when there is something concrete to show like remittances that add to the wealth of the home country.  It is much harder when the benefits are not quantifiable:  goodwill, connections between nations, small businesses and skills like language ability and cross-cultural competence.   From there we have a basis for negotiation and I think it is becoming urgent that all diasporans do this (some already have).  We need to make the implicit explicit.  On what terms is the "domestic abroad" part of the nation?  What are the legal rights and moral responsibilities of those who leave?  To what extent does one country of citizenship retain control over the productive power and behaviour of its citizens on foreign soil?  How is this reconciled with the needs and requirements of the host nations or the other countries of citizenship?  These are terribly complex issues and international law does not, as far as I can determine, give sufficient guidance.  States can and do make their own rules but as plural nationality becomes more and more common this is becoming an incoherent intersection of competing laws and the power to enforce them across borders, with a growing population of diasporans caught in the crossfire.

Those of us who live outside our host countries have, I think, three options:  we can wait until states settle things amongst themselves (as they seem to be doing with FATCA which is rapidly becoming a global template for the control of the productive power of all diasporans), we can shed our second or third passports and citizenships or we can make some effort to organize across nations and host countries and try to influence how this all shakes out.  I am hoping that the third will become a reality one day but I very much fear that option one and two are the most likely scenarios.  This would mean that states, long hostile to the very concept of dual nationality and emigration, will finally get what they have always wanted:  captive citizens.


bubblebustin said...

There are as many reasons for living outside of ones country of nationality as there are people living those lives. Those reasons are as diverse as having a nationality imposed on them (jus sanguinis), economic, family, or out and out rejection of the homeland. I agree, most of us really wouldn't care too much about it if there were only upsides to maintaining our citizenships, but when citizenship becomes a hardship we have to ask ourselves if the cost is worth it. When a citizen is faced with this dilemma, it’s really difficult to get objectivity from those who aren’t faced with the same decision, because it strikes at what many consider their identity. If you combine that identity with an economic price tag, many believe that their citizenship must somehow be of greater value, or even better than other citizenships -a kind of elitism that may not otherwise exist. Under that premise, it’s easy progress to believing that the expat suffers from a serious error of judgment and thus should be discredited, or more callously, treated as a traitor. The fact that we may be thriving in another land only leads to more suspicion and even disdain, especially if it is becoming apparent that life actually could be better elsewhere.
I’m learning that some citizenship’s cannot be treated passively, that doing so will only lead to difficulty. So yes, education (providing and seeking) is key to citizens, especially when it’s written into their country’s laws that certain actions on the part of the citizen can potentially harm them. Land of the free? Yes, but you takes your chances elsewhere.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

bubblebustin - that is a very insightful and thoughtful comment. There is an empathy gap here that you could rive a truck through. And it's so emotional for so many people on all sides. Some days I really despair that cooler heads will prevail and that we will be able to have a calm discussion about this. I am both concerned and looking forward to the renunciation statistics for 2012. I think it will make headlines and provoke a lot of discussion in the US. When the numbers are low then the argument, "it's just a few people and good riddens to the tax evaders" is still convincing for many. But when low numbers start rising some other explanation is going to be necessary. I am hoping that this will be an opportunity to get a semi-rational discussion going. I live in hope anyway.