Somewhere in the depths of the messy and multi-directional fallout of Brexit, an interesting counter-trend is crystallizing. Even as millions of voters around the world loudly embrace slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Vote Leave, Take Control,” the notion of fixed national citizenship has probably never faced such a moment of reshaping. What started as a referendum on political membership for the United Kingdom may be the trigger for a radical redefinition of citizenship as a concept in the near future—more like a subscription membership than a birthright.
One immediate casualty of Brexit has been the notion of lifelong citizenship, most easily observed by a dramatic surge in applications for advantageous passports from countries like Ireland—part of the British Isles but not the UK, therefore remaining in the European Union. Facing an unprecedented run on applications forms, the Irish government asked aspiring passport-swappers hoping to take advantage of Irish ancestry to maintain a European foothold to take a breath. Many young British students and professionals who have staked their bet on remaining part of, and taking advantage of, the EU as a political, social, and economic project. For these British citizens, the Brexit vote was devastating.
Likewise, there is a rising apprehension among immigrants that they may also be booted from the UK. This led to an increase in the number of EU citizens applying for British passports in the run up to the June 23rd referendum, helping to fuel a 29% increase in applicants from 2014 to 2015. UK immigration lawyers also reported seeing a rush of new clients in the weeks following the shocking result.
Nationality-jumping isn’t solely a concern for those looking to protect relationships, investments, or livelihoods, however. Some national leaders are thinking aloud about how to sweeten the pot for those considering a new and improved citizenship status. A week after the Brexit vote, one German minister suggested re-opening the prospect of dual citizenship for UK citizens, while Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi suggested British students in Italy could apply for Italian passports.
Amid all of this unrest, Europe’s first hybrid digital residency program, Estonia’s e-residency offering, also reported a jump in applicants post-referendum. Though it doesn’t currently convey any right to actually live in the Baltic state or provide other EU residency rights, it does provide the ability to digitally open a bank account, and start and run a business. Yet, many new applicants are hopeful this digital foothold will eventually become more substantial in the longer term.
Is a form of digital citizenship the best way forward in a post-Brexit world? Unlike, say, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reimposed old nationalities almost overnight a quarter century ago, the UK’s referendum comes at a moment when global flows of trade, travel, and technology have laid the groundwork for new ways of thinking about, and constructing, citizenship. It’s also shaking a generation that defines itself less through a national lens than through global connections.
Younger, more mobile, more tech-enabled citizens have grown up in a period of relative border permeability. These young people tend to see themselves more as global or regional citizens first, according to various surveys done prior to the Brexit vote. Interestingly, this sentiment has been growing fastest in countries like India and China, where middle classes have most recently emerged. These middle-class, relatively wealthy digital nomads have been the target of criticism post-Brexit as having escaped the negative fallout of globalization; but the desire to attract their skills—and taxes—has pushed governments to compete to meet their needs through new visa programs and new offers of hybrid citizenship. (Correspondingly, Harun Onder, a World Bank economist who also blogs at the Brookings Institution, has posited that countries with older populations tend to lean more nationalistic.)
The Brexit situation specifically sparked some novel proposals for what could best be described as “fractional citizenship,” with holders paying costs in various countries based on length of residency. Many digitally native young people in both developed and emerging markets have already been nudged into pay-as-you-go utilities. So it’s not surprising that a similar idea would surface regarding the the hard and soft services—from healthcare to infrastructure to education to security—citizenship typically ensures.
Technology as a carrier for identity is not new. Borderless platforms, such as the biggest global social networks or national digital identity programs (like those of Singapore, the UK and the Netherlands) could redefine how we identify ourselves—both domestically and internationally. Already some 70-odd countries have biometric passports, which are effectively simple digital IDs with paper backups. There are already several projects afoot to develop prototype blockchain-based passports, and at least one country in the Middle East is rumored to be looking at blockchain-based e-citizenship, according to a source close to the project.
As countries become aggressive about attracting the digitally enabled, and build out more digital services of their own, the idea of nation-as-a-service comes into sharper focus. A country defined as a platform of digital services, social and cultural values, and economic rules, looks more like the cloud-based services of Dropbox, Spotify, Gmail than the nation-state as defined in the 17th century. While national identity is still a more complex notion, how that identity moves across borders is becoming more fluid.
Here’s a quick thought experiment: Could a country offer you a range of citizenship subscription options, and bill your taxes based on “membership” and services used? If countries like Germany, Italy, and Estonia are willing to reconsider what constitutes citizenship just to keep up with broader global pressures of economic competitiveness and migration, what package of benefits and protections might a forward-thinking country offer economic migrants, or extend to refugees seeking assistance while residing in another country? What if tapping the benefits of a third country wasn’t only the privilege of the wealthy, but something as easy as signing up for Netflix?
Right now, a migrant has to go through the complicated process of traveling to or visiting the physical embassy of, applying to, and waiting to enter a country in which they want to resettle. This involves both complex tangles of paperwork—and now data—that creates both intended and unintended friction. As a result, we have probably millions of people around the world stalled in limbo, awaiting the possibility of gaining new protections or opportunities.
Many European politicians have spent the days since Brexit openly questioning the borders of countries, mulling the possibility of independent city-states, and talking about dissolving longstanding political unions. It seems inevitable, then, given the stakes for citizens from these political upheavals, that citizenship might also be ripe for disruption. The fluidity of movement that’s been quietly, expensively—and exclusively—available to the super rich for decades may be entering its moment of actual democratization, and citizenship (or many citizenships) may just be a click away.