National identity and belonging: what does it mean to be a citizen?

In some respects, we are seeing a clash between a cosmopolitan view of citizenship and a national one. For example, critics of populism frequently assert that citizens and foreigners should enjoy the same privileges. This seems to be based on the belief that the exclusion of non-citizens from, for instance, welfare rights or electoral franchise is similar to discriminating against someone on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. When Theresa May declared that people who call themselves “citizens of the world” don’t know the meaning of citizenship and are in fact “citizens of nowhere”, she caused outcry. Many interpreted this as a post-Brexit return to patriotic xenophobia and responded by reasserting their desire to be world citizens or, indeed, “citizens of nowhere”.

But, what can citizenship mean if it is divorced from place and detached from any special rights and duties? How can democratic decision-making work unless citizens interact with one another within a geographically-bound entity? As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued: “Nobody can be a citizen of the world as he is the citizen of his country… A citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens in a country among countries. His rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by those of his fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory… laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality.”

Some argue that national citizenship is the mechanism that allows citizens to forge bonds and allows a sense of solidarity to develop, essential for taking responsibility for the future of their society. But, if one side argues that, despite differences, citizens are bound by a deep sense of commonality, others worry that this privileges those who share a culture and history at the expense of new cultural identities.

So, does citizenship by definition demarcate as well as unify? Is citizenship ultimately necessary, or is it a relic of a less-connected world? Is citizenship more robust when based on an American-style civic ideal to which anyone can subscribe? Should we understand citizenship primarily as a practical matter of rights and responsibilities or as a more elevated matter of identity and allegiance?