Selling Citizenship

By Professor Chris Armstrong, Politics & International Relations

The government of Malta has recently caused controversy by putting citizenship on sale. Maltese nationality is available, no-further-strings-attached, to anyone willing to pay €650,000. And anyone who takes up the offer will then, immediately, also become a citizen of the European Union. This provokes strong reactions in many people. Many of us think citizenship should never be sold, and that even to contemplate doing this is to cheapen the relation between all citizens and their governments. For others, Malta’s move is a perfectly defensible and even pragmatic decision in a globalized world, and all it needs to be make sure of is that the price it gets is a good one.

For political scientists, and political theorists, the case is interesting insofar as it forces us to think hard about what citizenship really means, and what the core of the relationship between governed and governors actually consists in. A financial relationship? A communal bond? A mutual  decision to face the slings and arrows of fortune together? Or should obtaining citizenship be more like choosing health insurance?

A debate is taking place on this very issue at the EUDO Observatory on Citizenship. The noted scholar of citizenship transformations Ayelet Shachar has kicked off the debate by noting reasons we have to fear the sale of citizenship. I’ve contributed too, and the message I’ve tried to get across is a more nuanced one. I’ve attempted to argue two things. First, it is in fact surprisingly hard to argue that selling citizenship is always wrong. Realising this has interesting consequences, presumably, for the way we think about the citizenship-state relationship. Second, although selling citizenship looks like it will often or usually be wrong in practice, the reasons we have to be concerned about it do not really relate to selling citizenship itself. The rather brutal fact of selling citizenship, rather, draws our attention to a whole series of ways in which processes of awarding citizenship in the contemporary world are unfair. Those processes do a great deal, on a daily basis, to perpetuate inequality. Selling citizenship looks like an especially repugnant policy practice, from a moral point of view. But perhaps, when we are thinking about the (im)morality of citizenship attainment, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

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