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Associate EU Citizenship: A Brief Assessment

Article by Dr Sam Fowles

September 14, 2018

Associate EU Citizenship: A Brief Assessment

Is Brexit just a choice between the Chequers deal or a ‘hard Brexit’? Supporters of ‘associate citizenship’ believe there is not. The proposed associate citizenship would allow individuals to enjoy some of the benefits of EU citizenship in return for a (likely substantial) fee. While this would undoubtedly bring benefits to those able to take up associate citizenship, it would also have a transformative effect on the concept of citizenship itself, exacerbating existing trends towards transnational forms of citizenship and a reduced role for nation states.

Associate citizenship of the EU will enable UK citizens to ‘buy in’ to EU citizenship.[1] Associate citizens would enjoy access to the same rights as EU citizens but will be required to pay-in to the EU.[2] This proposal has much to recommend it, yet it is likely to prove politically controversial because it will substantially alter the relationship between the individual and the state.

The proposal has been endorsed by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead on Brexit negotiations and is referred to in the Parliament’s resolution on Brexit,[3] and obtained significant civil society support in the UK. For example, over 300 000 people have signed petitions calling for the inclusion of associate citizenship in Brexit negotiations.[4]

Opponents of associate citizenship argue that it will undermine the Brexit process. For Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative MP and Leave campaigner, it will create “two classes of EU citizen”.[5] Bridgen’s analysis, however, is the wrong way around. Associate citizenship will leave EU citizenship substantively unchanged. Yet it will create two classes of British citizenship: those who enjoy rights in the EU and those who do not. This will alter the nature of national citizenship, establishing a precedent for a form of citizenship that transcends nation-states. This will empower individuals and cities in relation to national governments. The benefits of the proposal are, however, likely to be limited to more affluent urban elites, exacerbating existing social divisions in the UK. This article offers a brief overview of the most significant barriers and likely impacts of associate citizenship, and an assessment of the proposal’s likelihood of success.

What is Associate Citizenship?

The precise nature of associate citizenship is unclear. Any proposal would, in any case, be subject to intensive negotiation before it could be approved. It is possible, however, to identify a few key features likely to be included in any negotiation of a form of associate citizenship. Associate citizens would enjoy a bundle of certain rights and duties. A ‘thick’ form of associate citizenship could include enjoyment of the four freedoms (free movement of goods, capital, services, and persons) and other EU rights subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU). This would likely ease the process of travel from the UK to the EU and provide associate citizens with easier access to EU markets and institutions from the UK. It could also include the right to vote in certain EU elections (although this would require the creation of transnational MEPs, which would require some considerable changes to the current European Parliament’s structures). This would likely come at the cost of a substantial financial contribution by associate citizens. The EU27 are unlikely to grant UK citizens rights in the EU without this. ‘Thinner’ forms of associate citizenship would include some, but not all, of the above but are still likely to come at a significant financial cost.

Associate citizens will likely enjoy a number of political, social, and (perhaps) economic benefits. Access to the four freedoms and other rights will enable associate citizens to travel in the EU, take part in EU political discourse and elections, and interact more directly with their fellow EU citizens. Increased access to EU markets would offer associate citizens economic opportunities not available to those who enjoy only British citizenship. The extent of the benefit enjoyed as a result of associate citizenship would, of course, depend on the thickness of the version of associate citizenship ultimately adopted.

Legal Hurdles

Critics of associate citizenship argue that it is legally impossible.[6] Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) provides for EU citizenship as ‘co-citizenship’.[7] While national citizenship remains pre-eminent, the individual is a citizen of both their own state and the EU. This is not, however, an insurmountable barrier. It is conceivable that associate citizens would retain their British citizenship as well as their EU citizenship: remaining co-citizens of the UK and EU.[8] A more significant challenge is the likely necessity of treaty change. EU law must be based on the powers conferred in the EU treaties. Article 20 does not, prima facie, appear to confer the power to create associate citizens. A treaty change requires the consent of all member states. It may, however, be argued that the required power is implicit. Article 20 does not rule out associate citizenship, it is merely silent on the matter, meanwhile Article 77 of the treaty empowers the Commission to confer EU passports[9] and Articles 223 to 234 and 314 confer legislative initiative on the Commission and the Parliament.[10] The combination of these powers could form a basis for the argument that the EU already has the power to create associate citizens through its existing legislative processes.[11]

 A Challenge to the Nature of Citizenship

Nation states are traditionally the arbiter of citizenship. The state decides who is, and who is not, a citizen, as well as the rights and duties that come with citizenship. [12] This is part of a state’s cultural, social, and political legitimacy.[13] Citizenship and individual identity are interlinked.[14] Our perception of our own identity is heavily influenced by our citizenship because we reflexively understand ourselves as members of a particular group with a particular history.[15] Our membership of these groups is often by our citizenship status. As the ultimate arbiter of citizenship, the state thus plays a role in the formation and re-formation of individual self-understanding. The state is therefore vital to individuals in a social, cultural, and political sense.

As John Urry puts it:

“The concept of society has been central to western notions of what it is to be a human. To be human has meant that one is unambiguously a member of a particular society. Historically and conceptually there has been a strong connection between the idea of humanness and that of membership of a society. Society involves an ordering through a nation-state, clear territorial and citizenship boundaries and a system of governance over its particular citizens.”[16]

Since, at least, 1989 the state’s monopoly on the determination of citizenship has eroded. Social, commercial, and cultural relationships are increasingly transnational.[17] This creates space for informal alternative citizenships. Individuals increasingly self-identify with communities beyond the nation-state.[18] Some national leaders see this as eroding the role of the state and, by extension, their own authority. In her 2016 Conference speech Theresa May attacked those who embrace alternative citizenship identities, arguing that “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.[19]

EU associate citizenship would represent a quantum change in the nature of citizenship. It would formalise, and further legitimise, alternative citizenship identities. The state would no longer be the ultimate arbiter of citizenship. Individuals would be able to formally elect an alternative form of citizenship that transcends the nation state. The bundle of rights and duties that come with citizenship would no longer be conferred solely by the state. The individual would have the option of additional rights and duties and to formally identify with socio-cultural and, crucially, political communities beyond the nation state. The individual would thus become a co-equal arbiter of citizenship. Associate citizenship would therefore alter the relationship between the individual and the state.

The impacts of associate citizenship


Associate citizenship would empower individuals to interact with a supra-national organisation and with their fellow EU citizens in a manner that transcends the nation state (albeit to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether a ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ version of associate citizenship is adopted). If associate citizenship is taken up by significant numbers of individuals, this will accelerate the transnationalisation of individual relations that has occurred as a result of globalisation.[20] It will consequently erode the status of states at the global level by dispersing the (formerly exclusive) power to confer citizenship status from states to individuals. ‘Globalisation’ is often used in a pejorative sense yet, in empowering individuals and facilitating relationships and identity building beyond the confines of the nation state, associate citizenship will likely have a positive impact.


Cities play an increasingly prominent global economic and political role.[21] Economic growth tends to be focused in cities and, in the UK, increased devolution has empowered cities to elect their own leaders exercising broad policy making powers.[22] Cities increasingly cooperate transnationally, such as through the C40 initiative on climate change.[23]

In the UK, associate citizenship will further empower cities at the expense of the national government. Cities like London, Manchester, and Birmingham[24] tend to be richer[25] and more pro-EU than rural areas or smaller cities.[26] They thus have both greater means and inclination to benefit from associate citizenship. Associate citizens are therefore likely to be concentrated in major cities. This will incentivise mayors to pursue closer relationships with the EU than those pursued by national government. For the EU’s part, city governments will become an important point of intercession with associate citizens. Cities will thus become increasingly transnational and the role of the national government correspondingly marginalised. Cities are unlikely to participate in EU institutions in the same way as states unless those institutions undergo substantial changes. Their informal role, however, as key intercessors between large concentrations of associate citizens and the EU, combined with a more outward-looking approach to the EU, will give cities an enhanced substantive role.

Social tension

This will exacerbate the existing social and economic divisions in the UK. The economic benefits of associate citizenship will accrue to those who have both the means and inclination to take advantage: wealthier liberals who tend to live in cities. Secondary impacts are likely to be concentrated in cities as well. Urban dwellers already tend to be wealthier than those in rural areas or provincial towns[27] and wealth correlates with likelihood of voting for Brexit and being suspicious about immigration.[28]

Associate citizenship will increase the economic, cultural, and social opportunities of associate citizens, increasing the cosmopolitan attitudes and economic advantages enjoyed by the urban middle class. By contrast, those outside this group, who were already likely to be poorer (and thus unable to afford the – likely – substantial financial cost of associate citizenship) and more anti-European, will be denied these opportunities. The impression will be of one group enjoying special privilege while the other is neglected. This will harden existing scepticism towards globalisation and supra-national bodies like the EU. Associate citizenship is thus likely to further entrench the UKs existing political and socio-economic divides.

The Fatal Flaw: Political Will

While the legal barriers to associate citizenship are not insurmountable, it is likely the project will fail for lack of political will. Those conducting the negotiations have no incentive to advance a project that will marginalise national governments. On the UK side, the national government faces a situation in which the cities most likely to benefit from associate citizenship are either controlled by a hostile political party or an independent minded mayor. On the EU side, Brexit negotiations are overseen by the Council, the body that represents the nation states. While the immediate impacts of associate citizenship will only be felt in the UK, the project as a whole establishes a worrying precedent from the perspective of nation states. It demonstrates that the nation state is no longer necessary as the sole arbiter of citizenship. This exacerbates a trend in which nation states are losing the pre-eminence as both international and domestic actors. There is therefore likely to be little real enthusiasm for the project around the Brexit negotiating table.


The practical barriers to associate citizenship are not insurmountable. The political issues, however, require more careful consideration. The project would undoubtedly empower individuals and cities and, for this reason, has much to recommend it. While it will likely exacerbate existing economic and social divisions in the UK, the root cause of these lies elsewhere. These problems should be addressed, but they will not be solved by opposing associate citizenship. Yet, the projects greatest advantage, that it will redefine the relationship between the individual and the state, is also its greatest political weakness. Those charged with negotiating Brexit stand to lose from associate citizenship. The project is therefore likely to fail for a lack of political will.

[1] The Economist, Can Britons Keep Their Citizenship After Brexit?,  April 2017,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Guy Verhofstadt, “The EU will defend its interests in the Brexit talks, but will also be generous to British citizens”, The Independent, April 2017),

[4] The largest petition, which closed at 315 934 signatures, can be found on at

[5] The Economist, n. 1

[6] The Economist, n. 1

[7] European Union, Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, 13 December 2007, 2008/C 115/01, Art. 20(1)

[8] This would be unprecedented – a concept of co-citizenship with a non-member state does not exist in EU law. Yet Brexit is, itself, unprecedented. It is not unreasonable to assume that the process will require precedent-setting solutions in some areas.

[9] Ibid. Art. 77(3)

[10] Ibid. Art. 223-234 and 314

[11] This paper does not purport to offer a clear solution in this area, merely to highlight the potential for further legal analysis.

[12] See John Urry, Globalisation and Citizenship, 5 Journal of World-Systems Research 2 (1999)

[13] B. Gilly, ‘The Meaning and Measure of State Legitimacy, 45 European Journal of Political Research 3 (2006), pp. 499-525

[14] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Modern Age, (Cambridge; Polity, 1991), pp. 10-34

[15] Urry, n. 11

[16] Ibid., p. 433

[17] Akira Iriye, The Making of A Transnational World, in Iriye (ed), Global Interdependence: The World After 1945, (London; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 679-847

[18] Linda Bosniak, The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership, (Princeton, NJ; Princeton UP, 2006), pp. 219-233

[19]Theresa May, Address to the Conservative Party Conference, 4th October 2016, reproduced in The Telegraph, Theresa May’s Conference Speech in Full , October 2016, available at

[20] Iriye, n. 17

[21] See generally, Richard Child Hill and June Woo Kim, Global Cities and Developmental States: New York, Tokyo and Seoul, 37 Urban Studies 12 (2000)

[22] See Tom Gash and Sam Sims, What Can Elected Mayors do for Our Cities?, Institute for Government, (29th March 2012)

[23] See C40 Cities, available at

[24] See, for example, JLL, Greater Birmingham: An Economic Renaissance? September 2014

[25] See, for example, Danny Dorling and John Pritchard, The Geography of Poverty, Inequality and Wealth in the UK and Abroad: Because Enough is Never Enough, 3 Appl. Spatial Anlysis 81 (2010), pp. 81-106

[26] BBC, EU Referendum: Britain’s most Pro-EU and Anti-EU Boroughs,  June 2016,

[27] Dorling and Pritchard, n. 23

[28] See Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath, Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills, and lack of opportunities, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (31st August 2016)

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