Citizenship by investment, besides representing an opportunity for those who acquire it, is also a fascinating phenomenon that reflects a broader change in the relationship between individuals and states. How should we understand the current global citizenship regime, which is characterized by the rise of flexible, overlapping and instrumental forms of membership?
In today’s world, citizenship is the key factor that determines an individual’s position within a highly-unequal global system. Those who are born with the “right” citizenship, say, Swedish or Canadian, enjoy a formidable package of opportunities, rights and security that is nearly unimaginable to persons born with, say, Somali or Syrian citizenship. Only about 15% of the world’s population holds citizenship from the US, Canada, Australia or a European Union (EU) country. Relative to the remaining 85% of humanity, they constitute a kind of global elite. Citizenship in Western or EU countries is attractive not only because these countries are rich and secure, but also because the usefulness of such citizenship often extends beyond one specific country. For example, Spanish citizenship also provides access to employment and the right of establishment in Germany and Sweden, and permits visa-free travel to the US. Thus, even as many developing countries enjoy higher growth rates than Western countries, European integration and the selective expansion of visa waiver agreements have in fact widened the gap in citizenship value between citizens of Western/EU countries and the rest of mankind.
Since the 1990s, a new principle has been introduced into this context of global inequality in citizenship value: a growing toleration of dual and non-resident citizenship. In 1990, only a quarter of countries in Europe and the Americas permitted dual citizenship. By 2010, three-quarters of them allowed it. As part of this trend, numerous European countries began to offer dual citizenship to the descendants of emigrants and co-ethnics abroad. In Latin America and Eastern Europe, the demand for such citizenship was off the charts: for example, almost 1 million Argentineans and Brazilians obtained Italian or Spanish dual citizenship; in countries like Moldova and Ukraine, hundreds of thousands used ethnic ties to obtain dual citizenship from EU member countries like Romania and Hungary. In contrast, few Americans or Western Europeans decided to draw on their Italian or Hungarian roots and apply for dual citizenship. In other words, new citizenship laws allowed individuals in Latin American and Eastern Europe to convert their ancestry into a new form of capital that permits access to the EU. Interestingly, most of them do not seem to emigrate: instead, they are content with having secured an “insurance policy” — a premium passport and improved opportunities.
As millions of European descendants and co-ethnics convert their ancestry into privileged access to the EU, individuals who do not have such ancestry are coming up with other approaches to secure dual citizenship. One of the best-known strategies is “birth tourism”: traveling to the US, for example, and giving birth there with the aim of providing the newborn with automatic birthright citizenship. Data shows that thousands of wealthy parents from China, Mexico, Turkey and other countries give birth in the US every year and it seems that this practice is becoming increasingly popular. Another strategy involves naturalizing in an EU country with a relatively liberal citizenship regime, such as Sweden, then migrating onwards to a more attractive destination or simply returning to one’s country of origin.
All of these strategies mentioned above, and other pathways that were not mentioned here, only became practical and attractive once dual citizenship gained broad legitimacy. The deep reasons for this post-exclusive turn in citizenship have to do with a change in the conception of the “good citizen” that states seek to attract and retain. During the “short 20th century” — from 1914 to 1989 — citizens were mostly perceived as potential soldiers and workers. At a time when citizens’ physical presence and undivided loyalty were required in factories and on battle fronts, dual citizenship was out of the question. Since the 1990s concerns about security and loyalty lost some of their salience and trade has become more central. Today, when a “good citizen” is one who contributes to generating economic growth, having connections to more than one country might actually be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Therefore, dual citizens are now welcomed in most developed countries. These shifts in state policy have inevitably resulted in changes to the emotional and personal meaning that nationality holds for individuals. For many, citizenship has now become a strategic asset, an investment, an insurance policy – even a collectible item.