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Who Do We Think We Are?

S2 E5 What can we learn about what British and EU citizenship from Brexit?

14 Oct 2022

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who do we think we are a podcast exploring some of the lesser known stories of British citizenship. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and your host, join me over the course of the series, as I debunk some of the taken for granted understandings of citizenship, and examine how this changes our understandings of some of the most pressing issues of our times.

Nando Sigona [NS]: In a sense, Brexit it was a laboratory for seeing the the redefinition and rewriting of censorship in action, but not was not new in itself. Actually, there is almost an institutional memory of how to do this kind of things in the case of Britain.

MB: That was Nando Sigona, reminding us that the transformations Brexit brought to the legal status of EU citizens living in the UK has precedents. Indeed, as we've heard time and again on who do we think we are, the development of citizenship and migration controls in Britain is one that has been closely aligned to the political project of belonging. That is that project of redefining membership of the political community. Nando is a professor in international migration and forced displacement, and the director of the Institute for Research into superdiversity at the University of Birmingham, and together, he and I run the ESRC funded research project, 'Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit', which examines what Brexit has meant for migration to and from the UK. And what this makes visible about Britain's migration story. He has written and researched extensively on a range of issues relating to migration and citizenship. But a common theme in his work is how citizenship, which he understands not only as a political and legal status, but also as relationally and socially produced is understood by those at its margins. Those denied the full rights of membership. And he's worked with populations that include the Roma, and refugees, as well as more recently with EU citizens in the UK. You can find out more about his work in the Episode Notes, so head over there if you want to find out more. And of course, we'll be hearing much more from him later in the episode. 

You're listening to who do we think we are? A podcast all about British citizenship, hosted by me Michaela Benson. If you like what you've heard, and you want to hear more, you can subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcast platform.

Let's head back to the episode. Over the course of our journey through British citizenship we've developed together and understanding that the distinction between citizens and migrants is not as clear as it appears at first glance. We've also witnessed that racialization can fundamentally destabilise the presumed secure status of full British citizens, as in the case of those who are deprived of their citizenship. Now, in this episode, we're turning towards EU citizenship. And considering this in the context of Britain's exit from the European Union, that's Brexit. We couldn't really continue with the series without talking about how this relates to some of the broader questions that we've been asking.

George has been digging around in the archive to find out how people responded to the idea of becoming EU citizens when the Maastricht Treaty was adopted in 1993. And as he shows, there's a curious sense of Brexit déjà vu, in going back to some of these early accounts. I'll be providing an explainer that spans nearly 30 years discussing what EU citizenship is and isn't. And offering a very brief introduction to the changes that Brexit brought in this arena. And we'll hear more from Nando, who's going to help unpack what we can learn about citizenship from looking at this political transition and its impacts on the lives of EU citizens living in the UK. But now, it's time for George and I to head back into the archives. And today, we're taking a trip to the 1990s. Now, to me, this seems like only yesterday, I was walking around in my doc marten boots, thinking I was pretty cool, to be honest. But shockingly, I've just found out that George was not even alive when the Maastricht Treaty was passed, which makes me feel a bit old. Anyway, George Tell me a little bit about your reflections on what you found.

George Kalivis [GK]: Well, Michaela, to be honest, today, I had a little bit of what we might call Brexit déjà vu, going back to the 90s in 1992 and 93, to be more specific, and reading public reactions in the UK to the adoption of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which basically signified the formal creation of the European Union. Now, one of the main points of the treaty involves the creation of common European citizenship among nationals of EU state members.

MB: Yeah, I'm gonna explain a bit more about what EU citizenship is and isn't when we turn to my explain shortly. But I'm really interested in this sense of déjà vu, George, what have you actually found in the archives?

GK: So going back to the News archives from the early 1990s, I came across several Eurosceptic letters to the editor, mostly published in The Times to be fair, in mashing up those letters, we see that people would describe the idea of, quote, "dual citizenship envisaged at Maastricht, full of unspecified rights and duties that have been foisted on British people without any freedom of choice". And all this was very much seen as, and I quote, again, "treaty that alters the Constitution", bringing even the Queen's citizenship into the discussion later on, namely, on whether the monarch could really be both a British and a European citizen. Well, all this Eurosceptic often rhetorical, purposefully shocking questions are maybe summarised in a short letter by Sir Louis Le Bailly and I chose the British way of saying that name published in The Times on the 17th of May 1993, titled imaginatively "Maastricht questions".

So he basically addresses the questions to the Prime Minister and asks for simple yes or no answers. The questions are, one, "will the treaty bind all future British governments to Europe for an unlimited period?" Not really. Two, "will it assert Parliament's exclusive constitutional power to impose or remit taxation?" Three? "Will it authorise nationals of other countries to stand in British municipal elections?" Four. "Will it compel our children whatever their parents wishes to partake in European citizenship lessons?" Wow. Five, "will it compel the conscription of our children to fight in the armed services of a European Union without the authority of our parliament?" Aha. Six. "Will it put Her Majesty the Queen in breach of her coronation oath?" Wow. Seven "will it to impose by 1997 an increase in Britain's contribution to the European community of about 200 million pounds per week to subsidise other European community countries?"

MB: Wow. Okay. So I'm getting a strong sense here of the deja vu but I'm wondering, George, did Louis Le Bailly come up with any answers to this.

GK: Of course, he concludes by saying that, and I quote him again. "As I read the treaty , all seven answers are an unequivocal Yes. Yours truly Louis Le Bailly." Now, apologies if this was a bit too much. But I do think it brings together a certain way in which this particular European quasi-citizenship has historically been perceived by several, if not many people here in Britain, only for us to see the results afterwards.

MB: Yeah, it's a little bit bittersweet, really, isn't it? Because, of course, this is 1993, the beginning of, of that particular articulation of the European project, the European Union. And to see that already at the time, those thoughts were there those Eurosceptic thoughts, which, of course, ultimately, we saw played out through the Brexit referendum and leaving the European Union is quite, you know, it's quite a salutary tale in lots of respects. And I can see there, there's a whole set of things going on there around sovereignty, around who would have authority over the people, around what it means to be British in a context of Europeanness emerging. And there's no consideration there of something that, you know, I think I, you know, being a teenager at the time of Maastricht and kind of growing up being both British and European, would understand as the possibility of those two things sitting alongside one another is there? But is there something more going on here, George, did you uncover something else?

GK: I mean, well, of course, not all political and everyday voices were like this right. At the time, we see, for example, further opinions published in The Guardian, for instance, that it moderately supports the Maastricht Treaty, and the idea of a European citizenship. Indeed, the European Parliament, for example, was seen by some as, and I quote, "The only major international Democratic Party that takes the individual's civil rights seriously", and therefore, allowing it to become "the watchdog of citizenship" could only be seen as an advantage for an individual. Now, personally, neither would I lie fully with this latter individualistic approach, nor with the former Euroscepticism, of course. Maybe the only thing I would like to add here is to call on people to think of these treaties and forms of citizenship as they are or aren't experienced by those in different positions within our society. Like what inequalities or equalities do they create, and for whom and how post-Brexit stripping British people of the European quasi citizenship, and the rest of the UK-based Europeans of their citizenship rights in the country has been having real effects on people's lives today, as we see and experience it, both within and outside Britain. And Michaela, of course, you've researched a big and unseen part of that. And maybe you have more to say here. But let me just close by quoting the title of a much more recent letter to the editor published in The Independent last May. It reads, "Boris Johnson's father is now a French citizen. How nice for him."

MB: Yeah, I mean, of course, what they really mean is that he's now a dual national, as France permits dual citizenship with British citizenship. And yes, unfortunately, I have a lot to say about the impact of Brexit on the lives of particularly British citizens who live in the EU, and more recently on the lives of EU citizens who live in the UK through my current research project, but I'll be reflecting on that a little later in the episode. Thank you very much, George for that reminder of that long standing Eurosceptic sentiment and how European citizenship was caught up within that, but bye for now.

George was reflecting there on how the introduction of EU citizenship was received by some particularly Eurosceptic elements within the UK's political system. But how much do you know about what EU citizenship is and isn't, and how it's related to the project of the European Union? George referred also to the Maastricht Treaty. This is the Treaty of the European Union that brought the European Union, the latest articulation of a European political project into being. And it was brought into effect in 1993. Now, importantly, this laid the groundwork for developing European integration. And this was integration in a whole range of spheres industrial, economic, political, legal, social, and cultural. Part of this were the provisions that were put in place for a shared European citizenship.

Now, before we go any further, it's important to highlight that EU citizenship is granted to those who have citizenship of an EU member states. It doesn't replace a citizenship, but instead grants such citizens a set of rights, freedoms and legal protections under EU law. In other words, EU citizenship exists alongside national citizenship. Significant within this and a particular relevance for any discussion of Brexit is freedom of movement. And for those of you who can remember that recent history around Brexit, you'll know that freedom of movement was one of the things that became highly politicised within the campaign for and against leaving the European Union. But let's get back to what freedom of movement is.

Free movement is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the European Union it exists together with the movement of goods, capital and services. So you can already start to see that there's a kind of an economic rationale behind this. You know that one of our aims on who do we think we are, is to debunk taken for granted understandings related to migration and citizenship. And I think that freedom of movement can definitely be misunderstood. Because it isn't quite what it says on the tin. The first thing to say is that freedom of movement is a human rights concept concerning the right of individuals to travel from place to place within a defined territory, including the right to enter and leave that territory. This is not just a right that includes visiting places. But it might also mean changing the place where the individual resides or works. So it gives them the right to change their residence, or to change the location of their work. And it's this human rights concept that is at the heart of the EU's freedom of movement directives.

And it should just pause here to say that the EU's freedom of movement directive is not the only example of a free movement regime that we have, there are others. And so for example, we might think of the movement between the UK and Ireland, The Common Travel Area, as another form of free movement agreement.

When we're looking at the EU's freedom of movement directives, what we can see is that this is a set of rights, that allows people to move and reside freely within the territory of the EU's 27 Member States, it means that EU citizens are entitled to look for a job in another EU country, and to work there without needing a work permit, and to live there, and actually even to stay there after their employment has finished. It also means that they get to enjoy equal treatment as nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. The coordination of Social Security Systems means that EU nationals may have access to health care and other social entitlements in these countries. Now you can see that this framing is organised around the idea of people moving for the purposes of work, but there are also provisions for pensioners, students and family members. Now, here's where a bit of a myth busting takes place. Because although most people don't realise this freedom of movement within the EU is conditional. But of course, this depends on what measures countries have in place to enforce this conditionality. In other words, while celebrated as a freedom, legally freedom of movement is far more complicated and circumscribed than its name suggests. And the regulations around its implementation vary from one country to another.

Okay, so brief summary so far. EU citizenship gives you the mobility rights to live and work in another EU member state. Still with me. Now, Brexit ended the UK's involvement in the EU free movement regime. What this means is that British citizens are no longer EU citizens, and they no longer have the mobility rights to live and work within the EU that they had previously. Similarly, the end of free movement between the UK and the EU means that EU citizens seeking to live and work in the UK are now subject to immigration controls. The one exception is the Common Travel Area, which I mentioned before, and that's between the UK, Ireland and the Crown dependencies. It's a free movement arrangement that preceded the EU, and means that British and Irish citizens can live and work in either jurisdiction and have access to associated rights and privileges, but to return to Brexit.

This change also had implications for those who'd already exercised freedom of movement between the UK and EU, that is EU citizens and their family members living in the UK, and British citizens resident in the EU. At the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016, there were an estimated 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU. This is what was at the heart of the citizens' rights negotiations and phase one of the Brexit negotiations, the legal terms on which these populations would be resident in the places they'd settled. Ultimately, this process brought about a fundamental change in the status of both these populations, in places that in many cases they'd been living in for a long time. And with it, it brought implications for how these settled populations lived their lives. Let's hear more from Nando about his work with EU citizens in the UK. And his thoughts on how this connects with his work on the increasing instability of citizenship and migration statuses, I started by asking him about his approach to citizenship.

NS: The way that I approach citizenship has been through two main routes. In my early work, I'm talking about 20 years ago now, I've been working together with the Roma communities in Italy in a number of locations for many years. One of the aspects that I found most interesting was to see how within the space of a family or communities diverse people from a range of legal status from the citizen to the undocumented migrant and but also how within the life trajectory of one person there was multiple experiences of legal status, even a person could lose their status and end up being questioned for this status having to present papers in any case, even if they were citizen. So that was that was my starting point, so trying to understand citizenship through the experiences, so people that you will see at the margins of citizenship.

And the other entry point has been through the work with asylum seekers and refugees here in United Kingdom was a bit later in the work with undocumented migrants looking, in a sense, again, from the borders of citizenship at how people were building their aspirations towards this concept or this vision of what citizenship is. So it was not really a citizenship through the legal sort of, in the legal sense, but more as a combination of the political and the legal aspect, and the sociological one, looking in a sense at citizenship as a multiple multi-dimensional institution where the expectations of the people are linked up with the in many ways, to that are their communities, but more importantly, they are, they're not fixed in time. I mean, there was something that was very strong in my understand from the beginning was this idea of citizenship as something that was almost hard to catch something that was running away from people when they were getting closer to it and said there was someone coming out and sort of denying it to them. So there was this idea of citizenship as a battlefield, as a dream and a battlefield at the same time. So one of the core areas of my work is the, what I call the migration and citizenship nexus, in sense of the extent to which migration and the governance of migration and the experience of migrants help us to understand how this is shaped by different understanding of what citizenship is and what being a citizen is. So that, citizenship in a sense is always a relational institution rather than sort of something that is also constructed in the process or for engagement with those that are at the border there and outside it.

MB: I mean, I think that you've communicated really well there, that idea of how you know, people who might on the surface of things look as though they should have the same status might actually have occupy a different set of status is kind of legal status is in relation to the state. But also that idea of things changing over people's lifetimes, highlights some of the kinds of instabilities and dynamics of citizenship as a legal structure, as much as anything else. As well as that idea of you know, what people might be aspiring towards there. And what they understand being a citizenship citizen is and how that changes in response to changing state expectations of what being a citizen is or what you have to have in order to become a citizen, I suppose.

NS: The way that I understand citizenship is it as if it's part of a broader spectrum of opposition's of an individual in relation to the state. So this is why often I use the term membership as a broader as a broader sort of a grouping more than citizenship itself. So there is this set of spectrum of positioning in which citizenship is one of the options available. And it's also a way of the construct or in a way problematized what is often presented as a binary construction of the legal versus 'illegal migrants' in inverted commas, obviously, so looking at legal status as a spectrum, looking at the way that these positions are not fixed. Within this spectrum, one of the things we have noticed very often is this idea that first, the position of the individual in relation to the state multiplied and now you have this portfolio of legal statuses of visa immigration rules that really construct in multiple positions in relation to the state on one level, but the other aspect, together with this multiplication of status is the precarization of status. This idea that, even if you think in terms of citizenship, or in terms of permanent status, or indefinite leave to remain whatever, whatever label you want to use, you realise that those indefinite leave to remain unless a much more precarious and fragile than the term itself, let us assume, I mean, one of the example I found more fascinating is the the position of the EU nationals in Britain before and after Brexit, know the fact that I had permanent residency and only lasted for about four months, because then it was no longer valuable, anyone had to change status as a result of the introduction of the European settled status scheme. So this idea that there is a fragility of legal status and the proliferation, legal status, really, if you do empirical work with migrants is something that comes out massively, you know, people always go around with packets or piece of papers to basically almost justify the right to be here, or they always feel in a sense in danger. And this is something obviously, the more precarious you are, the more visible it is, you know,

MB: Can I take a step back on that just to kind of ask, because I think that there's an assumption isn't there built into those kinds of struggles for migrants rights and things like that, or that citizenship is some kind of gold standard, where you cease being vulnerable in some ways, but I think that you have a kind of a take on that as well to do with what might be also happening to citizenship and we start to look at this kind of through this lens on vulnerablisation.

NS: Once you realise I mean, this is something that ethnic minorities or or black citizens have known for a long time that citizenship is not the golden standard, it is not a reassurance that you will be treated as equal among the other citizens. And it's interesting that according to how you approach this, you will see differently the different amounts. So for example, if you are a migrant advocate, you want people to get their citizenship because they are more secure position within the state they cannot really be deported. So in that sense, is clearly an improvement on their position within the system. But if you are an ethnic person from an ethnic minority, and as I said, Before, I worked with the Roma communities for for many years, they are very well aware that their citizenship is less valuable than the citizenship of the others of the middle classes of the white Europeans, for example, and they have experienced it on their bodies, you know. Think about when we talked about the freedom of movement within the space of the European Union, and how some groups have benefited massively, have enjoyed it, I've had the possibility of travelling to go to live in other places. And instead, if you think about the Roma mobility in Europe has always been treated as Europe, they always been treated as European migrants, rather than European citizens. In a sense, there was always a debate, especially among the western states of how to control the mobility of Romanian Roma, for example, because they represent a threat, so there was an assumption about what they were representing or doing. And so there was all about how we go around this rules around freedom of movement to control this group of citizens. So there is this understanding that within citizenship there is both lines of defense, of differentiation of inclusions, and also lines of exclusion that need to be understood. And they they construct this complex sort of prison or membership in which people are positioned. What I'm saying is rather than sort of looking at [citizenship] is not necessarily the golden standard, but also you need to understand the how what possibility enables and what are disabled by mobilising through around the concept.

MB: That's really helpful. Because I think it's, you know, it's always tricky, isn't it when you're sitting there, kind of looking at something and saying, Okay, well, this is not quite what it seems. But we have to remember that has consequences for other people's lives. And in that situation, it's clear that citizenship with all its flaws, provide some solutions for some people that they would not otherwise be able to access. And I think that's really, that's fundamental in lots of ways. I think. I mean, you mentioned very briefly the work that you've done around Brexit and the case of EU citizens in the UK. But I wondered if you wanted to reflect a little bit more explicitly on how this kind of understanding of the kind of multiplication of citizenships these kind of limbo statuses that start to emerge, and also the vulnerablisation at the heart of citizenship, how those play out in respect to Brexit, and specifically EU citizens in the UK.

NS: Okay, my research on EU families and in the United Kingdom, in the context of Brexit has been very much so triggered by understanding what happened especially if you focus on children. So the family dimension and intergenerational dimension what happened to the children of, of the European Union, essentially, the children of those families, which were enabled by the framework provided by the freedom of movement, you know, the mixed families and etc. What happened to the children of those families, but I called the orphan of the European Union as a political project, once that that project is no longer there. And in the research we carried out with Marie Godin, Laurence Lessard Phillips, and previously also with Rachel Humphris called Eurochildren, we collected well over 100 family portraits, stories of how people were making sense of this transition, this geopolitical transition within the families and how people were talking to the children about Brexit. But the Brexit for them, first of all, was a sense of, of rebordering. I mean, there was clearly a sense of a loss, a sense of having lost what was somehow your reason itself to have been there for many, you know, I was here because I was a European citizen was something that I heard several times. So I was in London, as a way of really embracing this dream of the of the European citizenship.

And then what what happened next was in many ways people start to think in terms of what to do next either leave, return, move elsewhere, or applying for citizenship as a full British National. But what does that means is it's not just about you know, finding ways of minimising the risk associated to have loss of status. It's really a much more profound shift from being a citizen of the European project in Britain, to become a British citizen. It's something that is also helps us to figure to imagine, these are the idea of citizenship as on different scales, now is aware of almost a clash of scale between a supranational idea of citizenship and renationalisation of that idea of citizenship which is something that some people will sort of articulated quite nicely in their thinking around the sense of refuse to be basically broke back within a kind of a nationalist framework. That was something that we had.

But what emerged that in the course of the project was that this sense of attachment to a European citizenship to a European sense of citizenship, the European project was not shared among all the families of EU nationals were engaged to I mean, actually, they were very clear, some people that really felt an attachment to this concept of European citizenship, but also they felt as in a sense, able to mobilise it, you know, I feel it to talk about myself as a European citizen, also feel that I'm comfortable with that definition with that label. And then we realise that we're a lot of people that didn't feel comfortable in the sense that didn't feel like that label was available to them or made sense to them. So for example, we spoke with people from a central eastern Europe, for example, Among the people who spoke to from Central Eastern Europe it was more rare to see them using this European citizenship as a way of explaining why they didn't like Brexit. And it was much more going back to the national sort of affiliation. And the fact that they had experienced a lot of discrimination of in Britain before the enlargement that now that the [inaudible] period now was getting to the end of this.

So there was this sense that the experience of really the power of the immigration system, the hostile environment, on one end and on the other hand was that they hadn't to really feel an entitlement to be European citizens. That was not a label for them to use. But there was also another, I mean, we did work looking at why people choose or not to naturalise in Britain. So one of the things the starting point is that there is been a clear increase in the number of application for British citizenship since the referendum. Particularly you could see, you know, in the news, there has been 300% increase of application from German nationals etc. Then you look more closely to those numbers, you realise that up until the referendum there were like two German nationals that applied for citizenship and then that became three times six, that was okay. So, so there is clearly and this is noticeable is that if you look at people from all member states, on before the enlargement to Central Eastern Europe, in particular, so national of all member states, up until the referendum had a very low percentage of those were applying for naturalisation in Britain and then you have a peak going up. People that were from Central Eastern Europe is that the data tell us that that started to apply for naturalisation before Brexit and one way that I explained this is because they had experienced the hostile environment from well before Brexit you know, just imagine the front pages of the tabloids and the attack on the Roma and the Polish, 'stealing our work / jobs' etc.

So in many ways, in that case, there is an idea of citizenship as a forms of defensive mechanism in a hostile environment for migrants. For the national of all member states, you could say that basically most people saw the start to think about nationality only with the referendum because that really marked a shift in the way they understood their own position in Britain. They not only they felt that they were European citizens and that Britain was a European nation. So we are basically like everyone else which was in a law is what we saw you know everyone, you know, they cannot discriminate the job and access to job market, in terms of university you pay the same fees then the British Home student etc. So what is interesting is that there was no need for naturalising because they were comfortable within this so to be all European so this bigger, so there is almost this disjuncture between citizenship as a value and an aspiration and citizenship as the passport to and what enable you to do not the rights and entitlement that attached to it. So there's this different in a way with Brexit we see that the different dimensional citizenship the nominal discussed together they start to disentangle one from each other.

MB: I think some of the things that you were talking about before around how people are variously positioned on that spectrum, below citizenship, I suppose, or leading up to citizenship come into play here and how they position it can be a kind of I've been kind of thinking about it as like a deck of cards that kind of gets massively reshuffled. And I think that Brexit kind of does do that, in the case of EU citizens, because these were people who had a quasi-citizenship. Basically, before that, they were in a really quite strong position within that overwhelming, within that relational spectrum, but actually, what's happened is that they're kind of now in a and not uniformly either, but in in quite a different position, especially those who haven't chosen to apply for citizenship find themselves now in kind of, in your words, from earlier, when describing the experience of the Roma, as EU migrants.

NS: What has happened with Brexit is that the framework has changed completely. So you, you know, by becoming a European migrant from being a European citizen is a substantial transformation in in the way that you are valued by society, what is your value to society has changed. Now you got you know, in the past, I've written about you've got a price tag on your neck, and you are only valuable for your contribution to the economy, or, for example, or the fact that you comply with a set of rules that are very much functional, and built with sort of within a kind of a economic rationale. So the Roma person that before was to be able to travel, but that somehow additional control by the police, but was still on now if we found increasingly even difficult even to come to Britain. You know, that's that's the significant difference. So while I was acknowledging some of the layering within citizenship as well, it is clear that the shift outside of citizenship, it means also that the right to move and right to migrate has been affected significantly for for minorities and for everyone else as well.

MB: So that even that repositioning continues, it's not just that you have a kind of a levelling down for some people, it's a levelling down for everybody. Because the relational distance between those different statuses, it remains in tact to a certain degree, it just keeps moving down. It's really interesting, because I think that one of the things that struck me while you was speaking, was to do with the problem with assuming that citizenship has the same genealogy in every one of those European nation states, which of course it doesn't.

NS: But also, you know, your intervention also reminded me of another aspect of which I should have mentioned before, is this idea obviously, citizenship is not fixed as an institution but it is the product of a specific national histories and in the case of Britain of imperial histories, and as you point out, you know, there was, we shouldn't forget that in no way citizenship is a technology of power for sorting and disciplining the subjects in different ways. And the construction of subjecthood is very different in a republic, for example, or in a monarchy. And this is something that in many ways, the legacy of this different histories of, of the concept of citizenship still play a role nowadays. I mean, in British case in relation to Brexit is what I found interesting that it's, there was a sense of shock for the fact that the British state had decided in a sense, to deprive of citizenship not just of three point something million EU nationals that were living in Britain, but in a sense they were depriving the rights of citizenship to every single inhabitants of the island no in a sense, in fact that you are no longer a European citizen. It was taking away your rights. And this is shocking but on the other hand, it's  nothing new the reshaping and rebordering of membership of subjects in the British Empire is nothing new. I mean, they've done it continuously no, if you look at the history of the colonisation and decolonisation you know, the construction all this is Chinese box of affiliation and of the Commonwealth, the new Commonwealth, patriality, etc, etc. So there is, in essence a Brexit, it was a laboratory for seeing the the redefinition and rewriting of citizenship in action. But not was not new in itself actually, there is almost an institutional memory of how to do these kinds of things in the case of Britain.

MB: Nando's reflections both on how EU free movement was part of a continuum in rights and status, and also how those rights were unevenly distributed in that there were some European populations who were always questioned for their right to claim those rights really chimed with me. Over the past five years, my research has considered Brexit and in particular, how it was experienced by British citizens living across the EU. Quite often, I think that we think of these populations as relatively homogenous. So you may already have ideas in your head about who these people are. But what I can tell you is that this is a diverse population, it's by no means homogenous. And just as the UK is population as a whole, is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, gender. So too is the British population who live in the EU.

What I was able to witness, over the period of time that I've been working with British citizens around what Brexit has meant for their lives, is exactly how uneven its impacts were. I started out in my work with Chantelle Lewis, looking at how for British people of colour, who lived in the EU, even the experience of the referendum was fundamentally different to the way that their white counterparts or white compatriots, experienced it, with them revealing that they weren't that surprised at all about the outcome of the referendum and how it was part of a continuation of their everyday experiences of racism, both in Britain and the EU. And as we progressed through the negotiations, I started also to pick up the ways in which the impacts of Brexit, as legal statuses were being transformed, disproportionately impacted on those who were more vulnerable within the British population. Those who for whatever reason, did not have access to the documents, or to the employment, or to the resources even to really demonstrate that they had the right to live in the European Union or had lawfully exercised their right if we want to use those legal terms. And of course, I'm brushing over a lot of the detail here. And this varies from context to contexts. But you could really start to see those kinds of uneven outcomes of what was fundamentally a major transformation in people's status.

I hope that's given you a lot to think about. And I hope that you can see how Brexit sits in that broader context, not only of the hostile environment, but also of the ways in which Britain has, over time adjusted and redefined who counts as a member of its political community and the role of its technologies relating to migration and it's legislation relating to citizenship within that. This is just the latest part of the story. And I'm sure that we're going to see much, much more in years to come. After all, as we can see, there are connections in the ways in which it uses the citizenship legislation, its immigration governance and controls in order to tell particular stories about itself as a nation.

That's all for this episode. And we will be back in a couple of weeks with an episode of beyond the headlines where Ala and I will be speaking with Cecilia Menjívar about her work, looking at legal liminality, and particularly the work that she's been doing with Latino populations in the US, bye for now.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Who do we think we are a podcast series produced and presented by me Michaela Benson. Special thanks to Emma Houlton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support. And to George Kalivis for the cover art, social media assets and archival research. You can check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts and links to all our socials. If you like what you've heard, take a moment to subscribe on your preferred podcast platform. And you can also find us at That's all for now. But we'll be back with another episode very soon.

End of transcript

As people find themselves queueing up at border controls in EU member states, as their passports are stamped, there have been questions about why these things are happening. It’s all because of Brexit, and more specifically, the end of free movement between the UK and EU which means that British citizens are no longer EU citizens. But what do you know about EU citizenship is and isn’t?

In this episode we’re joined by Nando Sigona, Professor in International Migration and Forced Displacement at the University of Birmingham, to talk Brexit, EU citizenship and what this makes visible about British citizenship. Michaela’s explainer offers a whirlwind tour of EU citizenship from the Maastricht Treaty to Brexit, highlighting its emergence in the context of ambitions for European integration and considering what the loss of EU citizenship means for British citizens and their families. George experiences déjà vu as he uncovers how some politicians and parliamentarians in the UK responded to the idea of EU citizenship when it was mooted in 1992. And Nando helps us unpack what we can learn about citizenship from looking at Brexit as a political transition, its impacts on the lives of EU citizens living in the UK but also considering this in the context of racialised bordering practices, past and present, in the UK and EU.

You can access the full transcripts for each episode over on the Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit website.

In this episode we cover …

  1. The Maastricht Treaty, EU citizenship
  2. Freedom of Movement
  3. Brexit and EU citizens


In a sense Brexit was a laboratory for seeing the redefinition and rewriting of citizenship in action but was not new in itself, actually there is almost an institutional memory of how to do these kind of things in the case of Britain.

— Nando Sigona

Find out more about …

Nando and his work here, follow him on Twitter, read his book Within and beyond citizenship

EU families and Eurochildren research

Institute for Research into Refugees, International Migration and Superdiversity

Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit research

This episode’s primary source for Back to the Archive

Michaela’s work Brexit and British citizens in the EU including her paper with Chantelle Lewis

Call to action

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Active listening questions

  1. How has Brexit changed access to British citizenship based on an economic rationale?
  2. How are ideas of what it means to be British presented through discourse with the EU?
  3. Has this changed how you view your own citizenship? And in what ways?

View all active listening questions