Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: citizenship

Scotland and the erosion of national citizenship

The referendum on the independence of Scotland has a historical significance for citizenship. The net result has been a degree of convergence between the two campaigns, Yes Scotland and Better Together: while independence has morphed into independence-lite, the case for the Union has developed into a case for a somehow different kind of Union. In his admirable reflection on the matter, Mark Elliott wrote that the devil is in the detail: and detail, particularly about how Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom would be calibrated, is notable by its absence.

In spite of the lack of details, it is now clear that a defining challenge to the dominant paradigm of existing nation-states has emerged from both sides, as they exhibited competing visions of how a plurinational democracy can work. The Better Together campaign pleaded to deliver more powers to Scotland, following the idea that citizens living in Scotland can be better served by stronger Scottish institutions interacting with the central British government. This is not too dissimilar from the claims made by the pro-independence coalition, which had advocated an independence-light keeping five of the six unions Scotland is part of: the EU, the queen, the pound, society, and defense. The future developments in the UK are likely to weaken the link between citizenship and the nation-state in the United Kingdom at a time when the interaction between the EU and nation-states already produces a multilevel architecture of citizenship. This is not an isolated development.

Nation-states are increasingly torn between internal demands from regional institutions and the external pushes coming from international migration and supranational institutions. As a result of these parallel processes, the nation-state is slowly but steadily betraying its absolutist original nature. Historically, nation-states were created through repeated wars between the 17th and the 19th century and eventually came into being as the supreme form of political authority in modern Europe. During the last century, national citizenship has become the absolute form of membership exercised by the direct relationship between the individual and the institutions of the nation-state. This idea of citizenship exercised a powerful function; but today, as a greater number of political actors struggle for power and recognition, things are bound to get more complicated. The idea of a single, all-powerful political authority for each national community is increasingly under pressure. Nowhere is this clearer than in Europe. Over the last few decades many European nation-states have been hollowed-out by the emergence of the European Union in many crucial domains of public policy, from economic regulation to monetary policy and control over immigration. At the same time, many European regions are demanding greater institutional recognition: not only Scotland, but also Catalonia, Basque Country, Galicia, Veneto, South Tyrol, Sardinia, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Corsica, Flanders, just to mention the most vocal ones. Interestingly, even if all these movements are going against one nation-state, most of them still want a state of their own. Apparently, it remains very hard to think beyond the nation-state. However, the parallel processes of supranationalism and regionalism are in fact creating novel forms of multilevel citizenship in Europe.

Forms of strengthened autonomy within a greater multilevel ‘whole’ are somehow akin to the kind of architecture that characterized many sub-state political communities that existed before the rise of the nation-state. In these polities one’s political status resulted from the combined effect of different levels of government. Examples include self-governing cities (eg. the Bishopric of Trent, established as a self-standing political community with its own customary laws and royal privileges, but whose inhabitants remained subjects of the larger Holy Roman Empirestate), Ottoman eyalets (eg. Bosnia, a constituent province of the Ottoman caliphate that was autonomously governed by a vizier as part of the larger kingdom of Ottoman sultans), constituent parts of Empires (eg. the Archiregnum Hungaricum, a complex confection of states and local autonomies that were part of the Habsburg Empire but could retain their own sovereignty to legislate in the areas of justice, education and religious matters, and interior affairs) and, more recently, free cities (eg. the Free City of Danzig, the semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939 under League of Nations protection and put into a binding customs union with Poland). These are all examples of how individual rights and duties can result from the interaction between different layers of government.

The outcome of the Scottish referendum goes in this direction. The campaign showed that “Independence” and “Union” are not binary concepts: each instead represents a very wide spectrum of constitutional possibilities. The Better Together side won under a promise of delivering more powers to the four nations that are part of the Kingdom. The question that now faces this country is not concerned only with the amount of authority that will be devolved, but also with its nature, purpose, and constitutional security. The most obvious alternative to the present system is federalism, but here, too, we must be careful. Like devolution and independence, federalism can be declined in many different ways and it would unthinkable to transfer the kind of German federalism to the UK. Importantly, however, the Scottish referendum has prompted fundamental rethinking about the distribution of power within the United Kingdom and which layers of government should be responsible for individual rights. Outside Europe, Quebec has shifted focus from “independence” to “special partnership” with the rest of Canada. In the contemporary world, it is becoming more and more common that individual citizenship rights result from a nested structure composed of smaller communities that are contained within larger ones. It is within this institutional setting that plurinational forms of democracy emerge as workable alternatives to the traditional paradigm of absolute national citizenship.


A few days ago I made a reference to some of the main differences that distinguish modern liberals and communitarian thinkers. This is an old debate which still fascinates me. To put it very simply, I would say that this is a conversation between those who believe we have only voluntary obligations and those who believe we have moral obligations of membership and loyalty.

This latter set of obligations does not exclusively refer to universal moral duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily, but also to obligations towards the communities we are part of, even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. For instance, as communitarians point out, obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.

Of course, this is such a big debate that it would be impossible to wrap it up in a couple of short messages. However, as most of the intriguing conversations we can have, this is an argument for further questions and not for definitive answers. As a matter of fact, the best way to think about it is through a few dilemmas which are proposed on Michael Sandel’s Justice website.

  1. If you caught your brother shoplifting, would you call the police? Should you call the police? Many people would hesitate to report their own brother. Is this evidence of a special moral obligation that competes a universal duty of justice, or is it mere prejudice?
  2. Do parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children? Suppose your child is drowning next to the child of a stranger. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger’s child? Why?
  3. Do children have a greater obligation to help their own parents when they are in need than to help other needy people?
  4. Do Americans who live in El Paso, Texas, have greater moral obligations to people who live in Alaska than to people who live right across the river in Mexico? Why? What is the source of this obligation?
  5. Is patriotism a virtue? Or is it merely prejudice for one’s own? Most people do not get to choose what country they will live in, and no one chooses where they’re born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?

Indeed, these are fascinating questions. Thinking about the answers is not only an exercise for its own sake. These big moral issues are one of the reasons why one would be motivated to carry on a long Phd in politics. Meanwhile, you can watch episode 11 of Sandel’s Justice, which is pretty much all about this philosophical dilemma.

Europe 2.0: Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders

Is national citizenship still a valid organizational factor in the context of the crisis? A radical re-thinking of political citizenship, based on smaller entities such as Catalonia, Scotland or Flanders, may emerge as a reaction to growing imbalances.

This is the incipit of an article I wrote, which was published yesterday on openDemocracy, “a website for debate about international politics and culture, offering news and opinion articles from established academics, journalists and policymakers”. A big thanks goes to Mita, who helped me with the language review.

As people move

I missed the presentation of this important report by ISTAT, the Italian National Institute of Statistics. It was presented at the end of December 2012, but I see it only now. It is a comprehensive study on migration to, from, and within Italy. I think there are three main points that are interesting to catch.

1. Immigration. From 2002 to 2011, inflows of foreign citizens were higher than three and a half million units. About one million entries apply only to citizens of Romania. 43% of foreign immigrants coming from Romania, Morocco, China and Ukraine. After peaking in 2007, EU-members show a downward trend that lasted until 2011, when it recorded a decrease of 13.8% over the previous year.

2. Emigration. For Italians, the main countries of destination were Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Emigrants to foreign countries have an average of 34 years. One quarter of Italian emigrants hold a university degree.

3. Internal migration. In 2011, changes of residence within the country amounted to about 1 million 358 thousand. Compared to 2010, there was an increase of 13,000 transfers. Transfers between the South and the Centre-North amounted to 173 000, accounting for 53% of interregional transfers: 112 000 originate in the South and 61 000 in the center-north. Most of the people who emigrate from the South to the North, move from big cities (Naples, Palermo, Bari). The majority of these people hold a university degree.

This picture tells us that inequalities between the north and the south of the country will continue to grow. Furthermore, if people with a university degree continue emigrating from big southern cities first, and then from the country, we will loose the bolsters for innovation and progress. On the other hand, large immigrant inflows are becoming a stable feature. At this regard, it is important to notice that Italian immigration policies are outdated and are unable to account for the changes that followed 1990 and the rise in international immigration. For this reason, the laws that regulate the integration of immigrants and citizenship entitlements will surely be at the centre of the Italian political agenda in the next decade. This is one of the reasons why my research interests focus on managing immigration, integration, and citizenship policies.