As a dual citizen who hangs out with polyglots carrying several passports each, I can attest that identity is a complicated thing. It’ll never be captured adequately by lists of checkboxes — from age and sex to race, religion, profession or indeed citizenship. Just glance across Europe right now.
Right next door is the European Union. It’s a confederation that recognizes overlapping and thus ambiguous layers of identity and citizenship, including both a European and a national tier. Moreover, many of its members have in the past been quite relaxed about granting citizenship to outsiders, provided those have money. In return for big investments, these foreigners got “golden passports.”
The EU never liked these schemes, seeing them as mechanisms to dodge taxes or conduct other monkey business. That’s why it has leaned on countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus or Malta to quit the practice. Since the attack on Ukraine, the EU started cracking down harder. It fears that golden EU passports given to Russian oligarchs or Kremlin-cronies — granting them all the rights of other Europeans — could subvert the sanctions passed against them.
Ukraine and the EU are bookends around a variegated subject. People gain multiple citizenships for all sorts of reasons. Some Brits, in the run-up to Brexit, remembered an Irish grandmother to get themselves an EU passport. Many descendants of German Jews or other victims of the Nazis have exercised their right to become German citizens. Immigrants get naturalized in many countries every day.
Other bi-nationals, like me, simply fall between jus solis — Latin for “right of the soil” — and jus sanguinis — the “right of the blood,” creepy as that term sounds nowadays. That means we automatically got one citizenship through our place of birth, and another through our parentage.
Sometimes these twists of fate are boons that give people more options in life. Other times, they are banes, as for so-called “accidental Americans” — those who were born in the U.S. but lost contact with the country as babies or children, and often don’t even speak English. And yet, owing to the peculiar American 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.
Even in extreme cases, however, citizenship is rarely as problematic as the lack of it. 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 morphed enough to make the concept seem almost arbitrary. It originated in city states (poleis in Greek, the root of “politics”) such as ancient Athens or Thebes, where it described the rights and duties of rich, non-slave men. But during the Middle Ages, the notion all but disappeared. Identity and standing were instead based on a person’s feudal class — such as peasantry, clergy or aristocracy.
When the idea of citizenship returned in the modern era — especially with the American and French revolutions — it was again based on a covenant between an individual and a state. The former got rights (to vote, for example) but also responsibilities (to pay taxes, say).
Even so, citizenship rarely fits neatly with more slippery notions about identity. If you had an interesting life in the 20th century, you could have held papers issued variously by Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bosnia Herzegovina — and identified all along as Serb, Croat or something else. Latinx Americans, Turkish Germans, Algerian French — ever more identities in the modern world are hyphenated and thus complex.
That’s even true for people with only one citizenship — especially if they’re “army brats” or children of expats. Raised in countries other than the one named on their passport, such “third-culture kids” tend to float between contexts, sometimes feeling unmoored but also showing unusual flexibility and tolerance. Many feel most at home with other cosmopolitans of any nation rather than their own compatriots.
For some people who feel unambiguously rooted in their countries, such fluid identities can be provocations. Populism has been blamed in part on a backlash by so-called “somewheres” against the allegedly footloose “anywheres.”
The multinationals in turn chafe at the taunts of their compatriots who don’t consider them “real” Americans, Germans, Japanese or whatever. They consider these labels attempts at exclusion, and power grabs.
The reality is that identity and allegiance are highly individual and subjective. Take Eileen Gu. She’s an American-born freestyle skier with a Chinese mother, who competed for the U.S. before winning two gold medals and a silver in this year’s Olympics for China, a country that doesn’t even recognize dual citizenship. Is that fair or foul? Neither, I’d say. It’s simply up to her.
Part of freedom is choosing our communities, allegiances and loyalties. And part of tolerance is respecting the choices of others. In the modern world, those decisions are sometimes confusing, other times urgent and clear. Just ask the brave Ukrainians fighting for their country right now.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Putin and Xi Exposed the Great Illusion of Capitalism: John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
• Judgment of History Will Weigh on Hong Kong: Matthew Brooker
• EU vs. China: Is There Still a Global Marketplace?: Lionel Laurent
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.