Transnational migration: a challenge to European citizenship regimes

Transnational migration: a challenge to European citizenship regimes

Oliver Schmidtke

In the present era of intensified transnational interaction and increased immigration, European nation-states face a dilemma: Although modern societies are less able to portray themselves as closed, ethnically or culturally defined communities, a clear sense of “us” and “them” forms the basis for community membership. Regardless of whether they are built on consensual, territorial, or primordial notions of citizenship, societies have always had a cultural understanding of what makes their own community distinct from neighboring ones. In Europe, however, such standards of societal inclusion and exclusion are no longer as firm as in the past. Indeed, questions concerning citizenship have been the focus of political and scientific discussions throughout the 1990s and up to the present. The renewal of postcommunist societies in Central and Eastern Europe, the formation of an ever-closer European Union, and the increasing ethnic pluralization of modern society have fueled debate over how to reconceptualize the relationship between the individual and the state. Those transformations have provoked a search for new means to achieve social integration.

The problem of belonging–of collective identity–emerged as the central problem of modern societies at the end of the twentieth century. This development underlies the recent rise of communitarianism and other attempts to find moral foundations for modern societies. Both social-democratic and conservative parties engage in this search for bonds that are capable of holding modern societies together. In public and academic debate it has become widely accepted that social institutions cannot survive when they are viewed purely in terms of rationality and functional efficiency. They need “values” and forms of collective identity. The loosening of established institutions’ authority is reflected in various problems that intensify this search for bonds. Liberal societies seem to be losing the capacity to provide a set of commonly accepted rules and institutions legitimized by a set of shared values. Migration has further undermined the myth of cultural or ethnic homogeneity, despite some demagogic attempts at resistance. This is the complex reality behind the so-called end of the nation-state: The state remains, albeit in a scaled-down version. It is the nation that is problematized, as well as the cultural unity and homogeneity that serve as its raison d’etre.

In particular, the magnitude of immigration has provoked a critical re-evaluation of citizenship in contemporary liberal democracies (Joppke 1999). The classical notion of citizenship as a universalistic device for the extension of social and political rights, as authoritatively formulated by T. H. Marshall (Marshall 1950, 1963; Blumer and Rees 1996) some decades ago, seems to have lost some of its plausibility. To begin with, the current debate has paid considerable attention to the question of citizenship regimes as a form of social exclusion. Most prominently, Brubaker (1989, 1990, 1992) has pointed out how deeply entrenched established notions of citizenship are in certain traditions of nationhood. Those notions establish boundaries of social exclusion whose rationale becomes increasingly questionable when nation-states can no longer claim to define the exclusive domain of the political community. Second, recent scholarship has pointed out how the universalistic nature of current citizenship regimes makes them structurally unprepared to deal adequately with claims for the public recognition of cultural difference. Again, the fundamental question is whether current forms of citizenship in liberal democracies are not prejudiced in favor of the dominant ethno-cultural group in that they categorically exclude recognition of cultural diversity (Kymlicka, 1995, Kymlicka and Norman 1995).

Most current debates address how a renewed form of citizenship can be designed to provide a more modern basis for social integration and attachment to a political community (Favell 1997, Miller 1995). However, I take a somewhat different perspective in this article. The guiding question here asks in what way prevalent social practices of immigrant groups challenge established citizenship regimes and pose critical questions about their fundamental rationale. The example of transnational immigration is so intriguing because, first, it is an increasingly important feature of current European societies, and second, it raises some serious doubts about the appropriateness of citizenship regimes that are still modeled on the nation-state. In this context Germany is a particularly interesting case study; its recent citizenship reform purports to be an adequate answer to the multiethnic and multicultural reality of contemporary society. I hypothesize, however, that although the immigrant groups in Germany (the Turkish, Polish, and “EU foreigner” communities) do not constitute a genuine threat to the integrity of the existing citizenship regime, their social practices raise critical political questions about some of its basic principles.

To develop this hypothesis, I will first identify some of the core principles of established citizenship regimes, shedding light on the rationality of their rules for membership. Then I will introduce the notion of transnational immigration to show how new forms of social interaction are transcending the boundaries of the nation-state in a qualitatively new way. The case of Germany will be introduced with a short account of the recent change in that country’s citizenship law. Then I will analyze the three migrant communities to see how they show genuine examples of transnational practices. In the end I will assess the political implications of transnational immigrant communities for European citizenship regimes. Those implications are most relevant to the way that citizenship regimes define membership, regulate inclusion and exclusion, and stipulate rights and duties. What are the consequences for the established citizenship regimes if social and political rights become increasingly separated from legal membership in the national community? How do those regimes react to migrant groups that do not seek integration and recognition but whose social, political, and cultural status is increasingly multi- or transnational? Are there any innovative political initiatives that are targeted at adjusting their legal and institutional setting of this challenge? In this context, I will discuss some attempts to reformulate citizenship systems; these suggest a more effective way to deal with the phenomenon of transnational migrant communities. In conclusion, I will describe some of the inherent dilemmas of current European citizenship regimes that are still firmly based on the nation-state model.


The renewed interest in the idea of citizenship and civil society reflects the salience of a fundamental political question: How can one find a sustainable balance between the individual and the community (or the private and the public), while allowing for an indispensable social cohesion and agreement on basic political principles that all members of the community share? This question becomes more important as cultural and ethnic minorities play an increasingly important part in contemporary western society. The notion of a basic contract between civil society and political authority needs to be revisited in light of the claims of those who become new members of an existing community (Lehning and Weale 1997). The boundaries between “us” the “them” have become increasingly blurred in these times of unprecedented transborder mobility and socioeconomic practices that transcend national borders.

The very idea of politics as the collective self-determination of citizens in a community is in question. The nation-state as it emerged in Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the exclusive spatial and social container of modern democratic politics (Walker 1993). It stipulated rules of how membership in the modern form of political community is to be conceived. A fundamental function of this nationally defined community was to draw the line between those who were said legitimately to belong and those who were seen and treated as “foreigners.” To become the exclusive wielder of the legitimate power of coercion (Weber), and thus to infringe on the freedom of individuals, the state needed a clear sense of whom its monopoly of power referred to, what the boundaries of its jurisdiction were, and whose consensus it needed for its legitimization.

Against this background, many claim that citizenship and nationhood are identical in modern western political life. As Brubaker states categorically, the nation-state and its delineation of a political community set the institutional and subjective framework for the very notion of citizenship and its attendant rights:

Debates about citizenship, in the age of the nation-state, are debates

about nationhood–about what it means, and what it ought to mean, to belong

to a nation-state. As an institutional and socio-psychological reality, the

nation-state is a distinctive way of organizing and experiencing political

and social membership. (Brubaker 1990, 380)

Citizenship has thus been understood almost exclusively in terms of the nation-state, as the inclusion into a nation-state. Halfmann, for instance, argues strongly in favor of associating citizenship with “state authority over the regulation of membership in nation-states. Membership in a nation is called citizenship” (Halfmann 1997, 266). He continues his argument by stating that from the perspective of the citizens themselves “the association of citizens forms the people who then constitute a nation by constructing a common denominator” (267). In this perspective, therefore, the nation-state is the functional prerequisite for politics in modern liberal democracies. Internally, national citizenship regimes have historically been based on a fragile equilibrium of duties and rights regulating the relationship between individuals and the political community. The nation-state guarantees a certain degree of personal liberty and social well-being for a clearly assigned constituency. The citizens in return accept nationally defined and democratically controlled politics as the agency that has the power to generate collectively binding decisions. Individual rights and entitlements on the one hand, and loyalty to the political community on the other, are the key elements in generating mutual trust and continuity.

Beyond this “rational” base for the nation-state there is an additional, pivotal element that is crucial to the stability and legitimacy of national citizenship regimes, particularly in the European version of the nation-state. This is a “pre-political” sense of belonging that is ethnically or culturally defined and provides a supposedly unquestionable reference point for deciding who can legitimately claim to be part of the community. (1) The two dimensions, however, are closely associated. The sense of the “common denominator” can be seen as the pre-political base on which notions of equality and solidarity were built and the common consent formed that the state needed to function. The underlying rationale of the European nation-state has been rooted in both notions, a functional arrangement for (in the Weberian sense) rational administrative practices of the state and a cultural sense of belonging. The functional and identity aspects are closely intertwined in the historical role of the nation-state: Stipulating the duties and ensuring the rights of citizens depended on a particular mode of social and political integration into the community, by a binding collective identity strong enough to generate political loyalty and conformity with the rules that the community stipulated (Donati 1995). Thus citizenship regimes require a continuous process of boundary construction as a means of inclusion and exclusion.

The underlying sense of nationhood provides the psychological “glue” that secured individuals to the community and made possible the discrimination of “others” (Oommen 1997). Moreover it embodies the normative “meta-narrative” of the nation-state that–at least at an ideological level–allows for communal integration on the basis of universal principles. By drawing the line between insider and outsider, the nation-state could develop the notion of egalitarian membership. The more culturally (ethnically) distinct the community was depicted, the more its members could be convinced to be part of a sacred community whose spirit every member would share (Bendix 1977, Giesen 1998). The citizenship regimes in the European tradition are thus characterized by deep ambivalence in their normative claims: universalistic and egalitarian inclusion into the national community, but strict social closure outside its boundaries. From an early stage migrants have been portrayed as a genuine threat to the integrity of citizenship regimes. They were seen as questioning the boundaries of community and the very logic according to which membership is defined and inclusion-exclusion regulated. In Europe, compared to the more modern immigration societies, these identity markers establish severe barriers to the naturalization of newcomers, as well as a political justification for excluding foreigners.


Policy approaches and research in the field of immigration and citizenship have traditionally used the nation-state to delineate the geographical and social realm for the phenomena under investigation. The nation has been used to define patterns of integration, forms of collective identity, and citizenship regimes. However, what we have been witnessing recently is the emergence of a new form of immigration that can no longer be adequately understood in that way. The ability of some immigrant communities in Europe to maintain a connection to their society and political community of origin is new. This is primarily due to the environment in which these immigrants or transient labor forces operate. New transportation and communication technologies, a more permissive legal framework, and an internationalized economy with more cross-national modes of production provide new opportunities for immigrants to move from one country to another and to live and work in a multitude of national contexts. Due to the decreasing significance of geography in determining the social space of these groups, they can partially emancipate themselves from citizenship regimes defined by national boundaries.

To use the concept of transnational immigration means to indicate a new quality in migration processes, beyond the framework of nation-states. This new quality can be detected at different levels.

International networks of immigrant business organizations. Strong networks of support among immigrant groups and an elaborated “social capital” in the form of mutual assistance are not new phenomena in immigrant communities. Yet what is new is the degree to which those networks operate on a transnational level. Business cooperation, joint ventures, and financial transactions facilitated by globalized markets seem to have become normal practice in some immigrant communities. This development has been assisted by the decreasing importance of geographical distance in economic interactions. For economic activities the territorial boundaries of nation-states are losing their central role, allowing certain immigrant communities much more freedom to engage in business activities. Those activities can be described as transnational, as they take place in a social space for which the national context is of no pivotal significance. Business corporations and social networks lessen the importance of the actual territorial place of residence and spur the rise of a managerial elite that is deeply rooted in both (or a multitude of) national contexts.

New forms of transnational employment. Similar processes can be observed with respect to the sphere of work. An increasing number of people find temporary employment in different national contexts. This is prominently (albeit not exclusively) true for the highly qualified work force in business, finance, academia, and the like. With the European Union committing itself to the freedom of movement of individuals within the common market, the population deciding to look for a job in another member state has become rather diverse in terms of occupation and qualifications. Many of these forms of employment can be seen as genuinely transnational, as they do not fit the classical model of immigrant labor. A degree of mobility, strong social and cultural roots, strong cross-border exchange, and sometimes even political participation in more than one society characterize this new type of immigrant.

Formation of transnational communities. Modern forms of mass communication allow for experiences, knowledge, and sensations that transcend geography. Global distribution of news, cultural productions, and goods has given birth to patterns of communication not defined by the nation. These patterns have become more and more important for individual identity, especially for migrants. Increased economic and social contacts on an international scale are gradually reducing the pressure for acculturation and integration (Robert E. Park’s “identicational assimilation” [1950]). Once integrated into networks that operate beyond the national context, the migrant finds that even the necessity to learn the language of the new home country and to engage in a multitude of social interactions with the host society becomes far less pronounced. The sense of community that results from daily interaction in a clearly assigned social space can no longer be seen as a “natural” mode of generating strong bonds among strangers.

Formation of collective identities not confined by territory. Closely related is the formation of a collective identity that no longer follows the logic of national community building (Schmidtke 1996). Transnational forms of communication and the growing availability of modern mass media from around the globe allow for the maintenance of old cultural ties among modern immigrants. The nation-state is no longer the exclusive agent for creating psychological bonds among members of a community who never see each other. Through social interactions and communication beyond national borders, new forms of communal ties can be formed that do not follow the pattern of the nation-state. (2)

The decisive factor in these developments is that they indicate a remodeling of the relationship between geographical and social space (Pries 1996). One can speak of a decoupling of the two spaces, which radically questions the idea of spatially and socially exclusive territorial containers of political and social interaction. In this respect transnational migration encourages us to revise our established categories when it comes to analyzing migration and citizenship in modern society. These phenomena have primarily been viewed in the context of a clearly defined territorial space, establishing an interpretative framework for processes of integration and acculturation. The following case study of Germany and its transnational migrant communities is intended to show how the social practices of those groups question established notions and generate political ramifications that challenge existing citizenship regimes.


Briefly focusing our attention on German citizenship law sheds light on a deliberate attempt to modernize the method of defining membership in and obligation to the political community. One of the crucial motivations for substantially revising the old law was to bring it into harmony with a social reality that is decisively different from the one that existed when the citizenship law was drafted in 1913. That law was based on a strong primordial definition of membership (ius sanguinis), a “thick” ethnonational foundation designed to provide a common denominator for German communities that were located beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state at the time. A critical consequence of that principle of descent was that Germany has the lowest relative rate of naturalization in Europe, in spite of the fact that it attracted one of the highest rates of immigration. This means that many of those who arrived as “guest workers” in the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as their children, still do not have German citizenship although they are solidly integrated into the labor market and German society as a whole. Yasemin Soysal argues that most of the 1960s guest workers achieved protected membership status without becoming full citizens (Soysal 1994). As a result of their status as members but not citizens, they enjoy social inclusion as permanent residents, but not full state protection or the right to political participation (see Faist 1995; Hailbronner 1989).

Until the recent change in government, Germany’s political leaders were determined to stick to the principle that Germany “is no immigrant country” and thus does not need a new legal basis for the integration of foreigners (Thranhardt 1995). Yet, with great numbers of people continuing to migrate to Germany, and in the wake of grisly, right-wing, xenophobic attacks that upset the German public in the 1990s, a new citizenship law quickly became a critical issue before the newly elected government of Gerhard Schroeder. The goal of the new law is to provide an environment in which institutionalized forms of social exclusion of immigrants can be overcome and a more promising path to integration into German society laid out (Barbieri 1998). One of its crucial goals is to facilitate and accelerate the naturalization of immigrants. The reform puts an end to the situation in which immigrants can live in Germany for generations without obtaining full citizenship status, being relegated to the status of “denizens” (Hammar 1989, Layton-Henry 1990). Besides bringing German law into line with the dominant standards in Western Europe, the guiding idea was to improve social integration by redefining the standards of membership and replacing an entirely blood-related principle with one based more on the territory (ius soli). (3)

Without going into the details of what has been achieved by the new citizenship law so far, I want to touch on some of the challenges that this change is only partly able to meet in today’s German society. The surprisingly slow rate of enrollment for German citizenship among those who qualify for it is one example. I believe that even before being put into practice, the new citizenship law in Germany is to some extent out of touch with the realities of immigration in contemporary society. In this respect, the German case provides some evidence pertaining to the more overarching question concerning nationally defined citizenship regimes.


The case of Germany is particularly interesting because its immigrant groups and transitory labor forces challenge the nation-state citizenship model in a number of ways. Labor migrants from other EU member states, Polish migrant workers, and non-naturalized Turkish migrants often define their social existence and cultural identity using more than one national legal and political framework. Although only partly exemplifying archetypal transnational immigrants, these groups present some remarkable examples of how the rationale of existing citizenship law is being questioned.

EU Migrants

A new type of migrant has come into existence in Europe as a result of Europeans’ freedom to take employment in any member state of the post-Maastricht European Union and its member state irrespective of nationality (Coenen and Leisink 1993). According to one of the basic principles of an integrated European market, there should be no legal obstacles for citizens of one member state seeking employment in another. Although this commitment to labor mobility has not created substantial numbers of migrating workers within the EU yet, there are notable groups that have taken advantage of this new opportunity. In Germany they mainly fall into two categories. One consists of those highly skilled employees in the business or academic community whose qualifications allow them to seek attractive jobs throughout the EU. The immigrant community in Frankfurt am Main is a good illustration of this type of immigration: Close to one-third of the population of this German city is foreign; many of these people are “EU-foreigners” working in well-paid positions in the financial or business sectors of the city. The second category is composed of contract workers who come to Germany, often for several years, to take advantage of higher salaries than those paid in their countries of origin, for example in the service industry or the construction sector. In economically booming Berlin, up to one-third of all construction workers come from other EU countries, mostly from the less-privileged regions of the EU such as southern Italy, Portugal, and Greece, but also from Great Britain.

This group illustrates the extent to which transnational practices and identities have become common among an increasingly important social group. In particular, those in more privileged occupations move in a social space in which traditional geographical boundaries are less and less important. By its very mode of operation the business and economic community, as well as the scientific world, essentially transcends the idea of nationally specific social spaces. On the level of both professional activities and life experiences, the members of this group inhabit a realm that is widely emancipated from national context. The speed and availability of mass transportation and communication have contributed to a shrinking sense of distance and separateness. Although working in a “foreign” country within the EU, an individual has constant access to sources of information from the home society, related social networks, and the continued possibility of commuting between the two national worlds. Border controls within the EU have widely been removed, and even to live in one country and work in another has become a common practice in the border regions of EU member states.

In many respects this group of EU foreigners is firmly integrated into the host society, gaining full socioeconomic membership, while maintaining strong political, social, and cultural ties to the society of origin. In this case the nationally defined citizenship provisions do not create strong patterns of social exclusion. Due to the degree of social inclusion and legal protection through mutual agreements between member states of the EU, this group of migrants does not face many obstacles to a true and sustainable transnational existence, with the notable exception of being deprived of full political participation in the host society.

Polish Migrant Workers

After 1989, a new type of Polish immigrants began arriving in Germany, quite distinct from the group of earlier twentieth-century Polish immigrants. Although a wave of Poles immigrated to Germany in the 1980s for political reasons, most of those who stayed for an extended period after 1989 came to pursue relatively well paid jobs. The majority of these immigrants can more adequately be described as “migrant workers,” who take advantage of often seasonal opportunities to find employment in work-intensive components of German industry or agriculture (see table 2). Yet it is not rare for these jobs to become more permanent and extend over several years.

The Polish work force that spends much of the year in Germany (sometimes illegally) operates in a truly transnational environment. The geographical proximity of the countries allows for a life that supersedes nationally defined territories and sociopolitical communities. For many migrant workers from Poland it is even possible to go home for the weekend. Many are employed in farming in eastern Germany. In major German cities and particular sectors of the economy, there is a Polish immigrant network that provides assistance with practical matters in Germany while maintaining close ties to organizations and social networks in Poland.

This transnational existence is reflected in the ways that these migrant workers describe their experiences. Interviews and focus groups that I conducted revealed that obtaining German citizenship is mostly not an issue of major concern. Social practice does not seem to demand such a legal reification of the workers’ often-precarious status in Germany. For this substantial group of migrant workers, life is shaped by changing environments, forcing them to develop certain adaptive skills. They do not depend exclusively on the resources that they have at their disposal in one citizenship regime. For example, in Berlin a vibrant network of Polish migrant workers has created an environment in which members can find support and social contacts; the network is closely connected to communities in Poland. Regarding their collective identity and cultural form of belonging, there is no question that Poland remains their primary reference point. For many, working and living in Germany, even for an extended time, does not mean seeking proper integration into German society. From their perspective, nationally defined social spaces do not appear mutually exclusive. Rather, these migrants seek to take advantage of the opportunities of both countries, adapting to the requirements that they encounter in each.

Turkish Immigrants in Germany

The Turkish are the biggest immigrant group in Germany, and the group’s status has long been precarious. The first immigrants from Turkey arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s, often intending to return after a period of working in Germany. However, many who came before the active recruitment of foreign labor ended in 1974 stayed on and invited their families to come to their new home country. (Indeed family reunion became the most important reason for sustained immigration to Germany after 1974.) Most found a new home in Germany while maintaining strong links to Turkey and sticking to the dream of eventually returning there. (4) Originally, this group resembled a classic immigrant community and thus would have been expected to undergo a continuous process of assimilation leading to full citizenship in Germany. However, over the last decades their status in Germany was characterized by a peculiar ambivalence. On the one hand, these immigrants were part of the work force, fully enjoyed the rights and duties of the German social and health system, and had the right to stay in Germany indefinitely. On the other hand, those who did not acquire German citizenship (the vast majority) could not participate in political life and were deprived of basic rights regarding their legal status in Germany (Faist 1995).

Even with the considerably improved opportunity for immigrants of Turkish origin to become German citizens, the rate of naturalization for this group is still very low. It may simply be that for cultural reasons many immigrants of Turkish descent are reluctant to give up Turkish citizenship. Practical considerations such as the right to inherit land in Turkey might also play a role. More important may be a general reorientation, in particular among the younger generation of Turkish immigrants, in favor of cultural links to the country from which their parents or grandparents emigrated. In spite of being brought up and educated in Germany, this generation surprised observers with their willingness to develop ties with Turkish cultural and religious traditions.

One can also argue, however, that due to a number of factors this community has gradually adopted a series of transnational practices that dilute the importance of changing citizenship. The following illustrations of transnational social practices also illuminate the underlying structural changes that allow established immigrant groups to define their communal existence in their countries of destination:

* Increasingly, joint Turkish-German economic ventures are springing up. Particularly in German cities with a strong Turkish community, viable links to partners in the “home country” have been created. They are truly transnational in character, as they directly link enterprises and employees in both countries and generate forms of social inclusion not exclusively dependent on national context for a significant group of people. Lately these activities have been portrayed as a new business model, as a niche economy with a vibrant infrastructure. One can imagine how integration of Turkey into the European Union would further foster such economic initiatives.

* The availability of Turkish media coverage has greatly improved. Now there are several Turkish-language television stations accessible through cable, (5) numerous daily newspapers, and since the 1990s, many pubs and nightclubs that cater to an almost exclusively Turkish-speaking clientele. Religious institutions organized and controlled by representatives in Turkey have become increasingly prominent agents of socializing the Turkish community in a way that challenges the dominant cultural-religious identity of German society.

* Emotionally this group of immigrants is firmly rooted in both national contexts. While pursuing their occupations in Germany, they often have strong family ties to Turkey, especially the first or the second generation of immigrants. In this respect it has been of pivotal significance that becoming a German citizen and giving up a Turkish passport would mean loss of the right to inherit property in Turkey. The Turkish group is an interesting example of the possibility of dual loyalty.


What becomes apparent in the German case is that, at least in a rudimentary form, the realities of modern society (structures in the economy, new communication technologies, degree of mobility, etc.) have made transnational immigrants more significant; they transcend the notion of exclusive belonging based on nationality. But why is this problematic for citizenship regimes? In a last step I would like to spell out the political consequences of the transnational practices of increasingly mobile populations. These ramifications can be detected at three levels: (a) (re)distribution of resources through state agencies; (b) legitimization of political decisions and entitlements to political rights; and (c) forms of social integration.

(Re)distribution of Resources through State Agencies

One of the crucial challenges that transnational immigration poses to citizenship regimes is to bring into question the functional and ideological bases for the distribution of social resources (Barbalet 1989). Here a theoretical consideration is helpful. The logic of systems such as the welfare state has traditionally been based on the principle of an “exclusive universalism,” with distinction between members and nonmembers in terms of entitlements and rights. Even though the benefits of the welfare state are granted to those who legally work as noncitizens in a country for an extended period of time, its provisions are clearly defined by social rights through membership in the nation-state.

In this respect, social rights are distinct from political rights. Whereas political rights (for example, voting) could be extended to noncitizens without necessarily jeopardizing the integrity of the entire system, social rights cannot. Welfare states are critically dependent on a clear definition of entitlements and thus on discriminatory measures that allow them to generate a stable pattern of social inclusion and exclusion. In this respect national exclusiveness does not necessarily reflect a morally illegitimate act; rather, it can be seen as functional with respect to securing a meaningful universalistic set of entitlements for all citizens.

In times of increased (transnational) immigration the foundation of the modern welfare state is also challenged by concerns regarding the political legitimacy of its processes and results. The production and distribution of scarce goods in a society require political authority that may legitimately impose taxes. Traditionally this legitimization emerges from the collective will of the citizens as defined by membership in a nation-state. Transnational migration is only the most obvious case of a development that seems to indicate the redundancy of national citizenship regimes. People who are, at least temporarily, fully integrated into the labor market and participate in communal life are normally excluded from the political decision-making process of the community.

Here the EU migrant workers provide a good example of the difficulties that a state might face with a substantial group of noncitizens in the work force. EU foreigners pay taxes in their country of residence, which is, in the case of an extended work contract, often a country where they are not citizens. This raises (at least) two critical questions regarding their status: First, does the principle of universalistic inclusion on which national citizenship was traditionally based lose its credibility in light of the presence of a growing group of noncitizen residents? Second, is it acceptable to the noncitizen members of the community to be taxed yet be excluded from state protection and from the political process that decides how these resources are used?

Legitimization of Political Decisions and Entitlements to Political Rights

Transnational immigration questions the rationale according to which the nation-state was the adequate “container” for politics in terms of generating binding collective decisions for all those affected by them. If democracy can be defined as the equal and free participation in collectively determining those policies that are of common concern, transnational immigration fundamentally challenges a nationally bounded notion of community. Transnational migrants might not be entitled to or even willing to acquire full citizenship status in a country. Yet they often do participate in important ways in the life of a community; they are affected by the political decisions of the community and contribute to its well-being. Depriving those groups who might have a somewhat permanent presence in a community of any meaningful way of participating in its political life undermines some basic principles of liberal democracy.

Closely related to this, the extent of people’s mobility and (legal) transnational practices also raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of nationally defined political communities to establish forms of social exclusion that deprive these temporary residents of basic rights. The EU foreigners again are a good example. In legal and social terms this group can be described as full members of the community they choose to live in when they leave their home country. Yet their ability to participate in political processes is highly restricted; the provisions of the Maastricht Agreement only foresee their participation in local municipal elections or elections for the European Parliament. Furthermore, EU “denizens” illustrate the historic randomness of how boundaries are drawn and forms of social exclusion established. Their relative privilege vis-a-vis non-European immigrants is justified on plain political grounds. Moreover, the fact that boundaries continually change radically questions the sanctity that boundary markers could plausibly claim in the age of the unchallenged nation-state.

There is another challenge to the citizenship provisions established by nation-states: the political claims articulated by the migrant groups themselves. Yasemin Soysal has forcefully argued that political rights as a foundation of citizenship are increasingly framed and articulated beyond the confines of the nation-state (Soysal 1994). Her central argument is that, increasingly, political claims emancipate themselves from national contexts and adopt a universalistic reasoning that exceeds the limits of nationally contained citizenship rights. Concerns about human rights and the status of women are prominent examples of political issues that address a constituency beyond the aggregate of those living within the boundaries of single nation-states. The case of transnational migrants confirms this basic claim, in that these groups seek recognition and legal protection beyond single national contexts (Soysal 1997).

Forms of Social Integration

Traditional accounts of integration and assimilation presuppose a stable social community in which the immigrant as a stranger needs gradually to find a place. Transnational migration tends to question the entire framework of social processes and political demands on which the notion of successful integration has traditionally been based. Brubaker demonstrates how closely European citizenship regimes are linked to particular traditions in nationhood and a cultural sense of belonging. Yet these forms of collective identity as a pre-political context for social and political integration depend on continuous affirmation of symbolic boundaries. They need to be confirmed by social practices that attribute meaning to the idea of communal belonging. (6)

If life experiences and societal communication are increasingly shaped in more than one national context, nationally defined bonds of commonality–as indicators of successful social inclusion–become controversial. As my examples of some migrant groups in Germany indicate, for some of the transnational migrants, full integration into the indigenous community is no longer seen as functionally necessary or even desirable. One may say that a particular form of social integration has been rendered obsolete by the phenomenon of transnational migration, that is, the notion of a community that is integrated by “thick” traditions of ethnic or cultural belonging, into which immigrants were supposed to assimilate after a long process of acculturation (Bader 1997, Martiniello 1995). (7)


I would like draw some conclusions regarding the challenges to contemporary politics that emerge from the practices of transnational immigrants. The hypothesis of this article has been that the fragile construction on which the nation-state has been built is about to erode under pressure from a social reality that no longer seems to fit the established model of how the relationship between the individual and the political community is organized. Regarding the German case, it seems legitimate to conclude that the reality of immigrant flows and life experiences tends to exceed and undermine the current provisions of the citizenship law. The complexity and range of social behavior among transnational migrants indicates a growing pressure to remodel forms of citizenship beyond their national confines. Transnational immigration indicates how tenuous is the claim of nation-states to exclusive authority over the organization of the community.

A crucial issue is whether citizenship actually presupposes a form of pre-political unity or collective identity that establishes a foundation for the community that transcends political debate. Is there a way to replace cultural bonds with a modern, exclusively political base for defining the rights and duties of the individual? At the core of discussions on the status of the nation-state in contemporary politics are concerns about the viability of this form of delineating the political community (see Baubock 1994; Bader 1997). Modernizing the basis for citizenship would mean generating criteria for membership other than ethnic or cultural ones. It is possible that such a radical redefinition of citizenship would jeopardize its very existence. As Hannah Arendt most articulately said, questioning the idea of the sovereign nation-state as the basis for citizenship might be a politically risky undertaking:

A citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens of a country among

countries. His rights and duties must be defined and limited, not only by

those fellow citizens, but also by the boundaries of a territory….

Politics deals with men, nationals of many countries and heirs to many

pasts; its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in,

protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a

living political reality. The establishment of one sovereign world state

… would be the end of all citizenship. (Arendt 1970, 81-82)

There have been two prominent attempts to tackle the threat to the nation-state that Arendt detects. One is Habermas’s proposal to radically transform established forms of citizenship by replacing their ethno-cultural foundation with a “patriotism of the constitution” (Habermas 1992, 1995). Habermas’s concept of a postnational base for citizenship is meant to mirror the self-understanding and normative claims of an emerging multicultural society and to base communal belonging and sense of community on strictly political provisions. In his model, constitutionally enshrined rights and democratically organized political institutions become the basis for commitment and loyalty to the political community. It is worth pointing out that critics have questioned that suggestion on two grounds. First, constitutional patriotism does not provide any procedure for excluding those who would like to join the political community. The citizenship regime envisioned by Habermas is portrayed as being unrealistic because he does not develop any idea of boundaries. Second, Habermas is accused of underestimating the emotional power of nationalism and emotional ties to the community. His postnational citizenship is criticized for neglecting the need for passionate links between the citizens and the community, without which the community may lose its legitimacy.

The second response is the idea of a meaningful European citizenship law. There is a distinct effort under way to go beyond simply harmonizing citizenship and immigration in Europe, striving for a genuinely European citizenship. One could argue that national citizenship regimes could be replaced with a strong European notion of citizenship. Yet European citizenship, as envisioned by the member state at Maastricht and Amsterdam, is still very much a project in the making (Closa 1992). It is yet unclear whether this European citizenship is intended to replace the whole array of rights and duties specified in national contexts, or whether it is to complement national laws (Beyme 2000). Debate over the European Convention on Human Rights indicates that citizenship as stipulated in national contexts may not yet be feasible at the European level (see Camberale 1997, Eder and Giesen 2000, Evans 1995, Preuss 1995, Schmidtke 1998, Schmitter 2000; also Meehan 1993, 1997).

Furthermore, simply extending the boundaries of the nation-state to encompass Europe would not solve many of the problems posed by transnational immigration. The fundamental question of exclusion would remain, without new criteria for citizenship. A European citizenship regime like the one on the horizon now would be a national regime at the European level, basically transferring the logic of established citizenship regimes to a broader territory. It would not prevent the new regime from excluding those immigrants that do not come from a fortress Europe. The basic principle of European citizenship mediated through individual member states would be weak in two ways: First, it would prevent the European federal government from fully guaranteeing citizenship rights, and second, it would not be able to establish a notion of a community with a full sense of mutual obligations and rights. Weil points to the tar-reaching ramifications of dissolving national citizenship in favor of a weak European one:

There is no differentiation in the French social imagination between

identity, citizenship and nationality, between local and national

citizenship. It is for this reason that the creation of a citizenship that

is enlarged to include all foreigners or only Europeans (as envisioned by

the Maastricht Treaty) which would break the bonds between the vote,

citizenship, nationality, and identity is very hotly contested. (Weil 1996,


Citizenship regimes are based on a fragile equilibrium of rights, identity, and patterns of political legitimization (Turner 1990). It would be difficult to simply replace single elements of this symmetry without putting into jeopardy its integrity as a whole. Here transnational immigration raises doubts about whether immigrants can be included into the traditional logic of citizenship regimes by simply extending some rights to them. Rather, transnational practices suggest that the fundamental rationale of European citizenship needs to undergo a critical revision in terms of how membership is defined and how bonds to the political community are generated. The dilemma that emerges for current citizenship regimes in Europe is that although it is still the only institution that can guarantee citizenship rights, the nation-state seems to have become too small to be a determinant of the rights and duties of citizens. For the foreseeable future the nation-state will be the agency making collectively binding decisions. Currently the European Union does not seem ready to even partly replace the nation-state in that regard.

This has important ramifications for how governmental policies toward migrant communities are formulated and how modern forms of immigration and citizenship are addressed in public debate. Far beyond simply representing minor changes in the legal framework of communal life, changes in citizenship law touch on issues that are highly politically sensitive. As the public debate in Germany in recent years has shown, challenges to traditional ways of defining the national community raise controversial topics such as the devaluation and revaluation of citizenship, new immigration law, or a new naturalization process. Should immigrants be regarded as citizens simply by virtue of residence? How should membership be redefined in light of increasing immigration and transnational practices? In current debate on those questions the shortcomings of nationally based citizenship regimes are increasingly being acknowledged (Preuss 1997). As yet, however, there seems to be no viable transnational alternative to nation-state citizenship. The modernized German citizenship law seems to have become obsolete before even fully coming into existence: To define citizenship predominantly in legal and political terms, while retaining the exclusive principle of nationhood, may simply not be feasible.


Immigration to Germany, 1988-1996

Country 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992

Poland 207,800 260,300 200,900 128,400 131,700

Italy 41,800 40,200 36,900 35,400 30,100

Portugal 3,600 5,300 7,000 10,700 10,100


Federation — — — — 24,600

Turkey 78,400 85,700 83,600 81,900 80,600

Yugoslavia 55,700 61,500 65,200 221,000 341,300

Rumania 11,200 14,200 78,200 61,400 109,800

Country 1993 1994 1995 1996

Poland 75,200 78,600 87,200 77,400

Italy 31,700 38,700 48,000 45,800

Portugal 12,900 26,500 30,500 32,000


Federation 29,400 33,400 33,000 31,900

Turkey 67,800 63,900 73,600 73,200

Yugoslavia 141,600 63,200 54,100 42,900

Rumania 81,600 31,400 24,800 17,100

Source: Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI), OECD, 1998.


Seasonal and Cross-Border Workers in Selected OECD Countries, 1985-95

(in thousands)

Country Category 1985 1986 1987 1988

Austria Seasonal — — — —

France Seasonal 86.2 81.7 76.6 70.5

Germany Seasonal — — —

Cross-border — — — —

Luxembourg Cross-border 16.1 18.2 20.9 24.3

Norway Seasonal — — — —

Switzerland Seasonal 102.8 109.8 114.6 120.6

Cross-border 111.6 119.8 130.1 144.8

Country Category 1989 1990 1991 1992

Austria Seasonal 24.3 26.3 17.6 20.4

France Seasonal 61.9 58.2 54.2 13.6

Germany Seasonal — — — 212.0

Cross-border 2.3 2.9 15.7 14.6

Luxembourg Cross-border 28.6 33.7 38.9 43.3

Norway Seasonal — 4.3 4.3 4.7

Switzerland Seasonal 120.1 121.7 115.9 93.1

Cross-border 163.4 180.6 182.6 169.9

Country Category 1993 1994 1995

Austria Seasonal 15.8 — —

France Seasonal 11.3 10.3 9.4

Germany Seasonal 181.0 155.2 192.8

Cross-border 10.3 6.9 6.5

Luxembourg Cross-border 47.3 51.3 55.8

Norway Seasonal 4.3 7.0 5.3

Switzerland Seasonal 71.8 61.1 53.7

Cross-border 159.7 153.7 151.0

Source: Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI), OECD, 1997.


(1.) Bader (1997) speaks in this context about the “cultural conditions” of citizenship, a form of “historic rootedness” of citizenship in viable cultures, values, and ethnic bonds. See also Kalberg (1993).

(2.) In Germany, for instance, recent surveys indicate that most people would describe their principal identity as either “regional” or “European” rather than German.

(3.) One of the most controversial issues in the debate on the new citizenship law was the question of dual citizenship. The conservative parties wholeheartedly reject this idea because, as the former German chancellor phrased it, “there can be loyalty only to one country.” Due to the strong opposition in both chambers of Parliament the governing Social Democratic-Green coalition had to abandon the idea of dual citizenship and instead pursue the strategy of simplifying and expediting the naturalization process.

(4.) The figures indicate that many immigrants of this generation actually stayed in Germany. Of those foreigners who lived in Germany in 1987 45 percent had stayed there for ten to twenty years and almost 14 percent for more than twenty years (Bade 1992, Munz and Ulrich 1997).

(5.) A few years ago there was a major outbreak of anger and political protest on behalf of the Turkish population when the German television providers considered replacing a Turkish broadcast with a German channel.

(6.) In his studies on nationalism B. Anderson (1991) points to the critical role of mass media in this respect. See also Dahlgren (1995), Golding (1990).

(7.) The increasing prominence of transnational immigration will also challenge established ways of analyzing immigration in the social sciences. Many established categories of migration might be called into question. Patterns of integration, political participation, and performance of migrant communities might have to be re-evaluated in light of increasingly important practices that no longer are confined by national boundaries.


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Oliver SchMidtke is acting director of the European Studies Program, Department of Political Science, University of Victoria.

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