Right next door is the European Union. It is a confederation that recognizes overlapping and thus ambiguous levels of identity and citizenship, including a European and a national level. In addition, many of its members have historically been quite relaxed about granting citizenship to outsiders, provided they had money. In exchange for large investments, these foreigners received “golden passports”.
The EU never liked these systems and saw them as mechanisms to evade taxes or do other monkey business. That is why it has relied on countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus or Malta to end this practice. Since the attack on Ukraine, the EU has started to crack down. She fears that EU gold passports bestowed on Russian oligarchs or Kremlin cronies – which grant them all the rights of other Europeans – could undermine the sanctions imposed on them.
Ukraine and the EU are bookends around a complex subject. People acquire multiple citizenships for all sorts of reasons. Some Britons remembered an Irish grandmother in the run-up to Brexit to get an EU passport. Many descendants of German Jews or other victims of National Socialism exercised their right to become German citizens. Every day immigrants are naturalized in many countries.
Other binationals like me just fall between jus solis – Latin for “right of the soil” – and jus sanguinis – the “right of the blood”, as creepy as that term sounds these days. This means that we automatically received one citizenship through our place of birth and another through our ancestry.
Sometimes these twists of fate are blessings that give people more choices in life. In other cases, they’re a bane, as for so-called “accidental Americans” — those who were born in the US but lost touch with the country as babies or children, and often don’t even speak English. And yet, because of America’s peculiar tax system – which is based on citizenship rather than residence – they face a nightmare of compliance paperwork and are often barred from financial services in their home country.
However, even at the extreme, citizenship is seldom as problematic as lack thereof. Millions of people around the world – Palestinians, Rohingya, Kurds and others – are stateless. Their sense of identity is just as strong. But without the right papers, they often live in limbo.
Historically, the idea of citizenship has changed so much that the concept seems almost arbitrary. It originated in city-states (Greek poleis, the root of “politics”) such as ancient Athens or Thebes, where it described the rights and duties of wealthy, non-enslaved men. But during the Middle Ages the term all but disappeared. Identity and reputation were instead based on a person’s feudal class—such as peasantry, clergy, or aristocracy.
When the idea of citizenship returned in modern times – particularly with the American and French revolutions – it was again based on a covenant between an individual and a state. The former were given rights (e.g. to vote) but also duties (e.g. to pay taxes).
Even so, citizenship rarely fits well with slippery notions of identity. If you had lived an interesting life in the 20th century, you could have owned papers issued by Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina — all the while being identified as Serb, Croat, or something else. Latinx-American, Turkish-German, Algerian-French—more and more identities in the modern world are hyphenated and therefore complex.
That’s true even for people with only one citizenship — especially if they’re “army brat” or kids of expats. Raised in countries other than the one listed in their passport, such ‘third culture children’ tend to float between contexts, sometimes feeling dislodged but also showing unusual flexibility and tolerance. Many feel more at home with other cosmopolitans in a nation than with their own compatriots.
For some people who clearly feel rooted in their countries, such fluid identities can be provocative. Populism has been attributed in part to a backlash by so-called “somewhere” against the supposedly unattached “somewhere”.
The multinationals, in turn, resent the taunts of their compatriots who they don’t see as “real” Americans, Germans, Japanese or whatever. They see these labels as attempts at exclusion and power grabs.
The reality is that identity and loyalty are highly individual and subjective. Take Eileen Gu. She’s an American-born freestyle skier with a Chinese mother who competed for the United States before winning two gold medals and a silver medal for China at this year’s Olympics, a country that doesn’t even recognize dual citizenship. Is that fair or lazy? Neither, I would say. It’s up to her.
Part of freedom is choosing our communities, allegiances, and allegiances. And part of tolerance is respecting the choices of others. In the modern world, these decisions are sometimes confusing, sometimes urgent and clear. Just ask the brave Ukrainians who are fighting for their country right now.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• Putin and Xi exposed capitalism’s grand illusion: John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
• History’s verdict will weigh on Hong Kong: Matthew Brooker
• EU vs. China: Is there still a global marketplace?: Lionel Laurent
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously he was Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist. He is the author of Hannibal and Me.