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Nationalism, Mobility, and Citizenship in the Covid Era

Prof. Peter J. Spiro, Charles Weiner Professor of Law at Temple University Law School

The Covid-19 pandemic proved the first major blow to the post-globalization system of mobility. The lockdown reinforced national identities as many individuals returned to their homelands. Constraints on international travel have also temporarily reduced the value of mobility privileges for many. But the fallout from the pandemic will ultimately accelerate pre-existing trends towards citizenship acquisition as transnational elites look to insure against future shock events.

As almost all countries moved to shut down their borders in an attempt to prevent the virus from coursing its way across the world, waves of people boarded planes to return to their homelands. These were not just interrupted vacations but the interrupted lives of individuals working, studying, and otherwise living abroad. For the most part, those who traveled in these fretful circumstances were going home to places in which they had citizenship, but not just citizenship — home in the sense of their primary sentimental ties.

That shows the continuing importance of citizenship in its conventional understanding. Citizenship has historically been about where a person is ‘from’. Citizenship did not concern itself much with third-country mobility privileges. Citizenship has guaranteed a right of entry into the country in which that citizenship is held. That right has perhaps been taken for granted in the wake of globalization, at least with respect to affluent individuals who have enjoyed substantial global mobility privileges. Where your passport was from was of little significance as long as it was premium class.

That changed with Covid. US passport holders, accustomed to traveling the world obstacle free, are now welcome in only a handful of states. The spectacle of a group of Americans who are not accustomed to being stopped from going anywhere being turned away from Sardinia after arrival on their private jet exemplified the shift. As Covid spread, almost all states allowed the entry of their citizens at the same time as they clamped down almost completely on the entry of others.

So Covid is making people feel their citizenship more than before. But Covid is also giving people more reason to secure additional citizenships. Holders of premium citizenships now have an incentive to secure additional citizenships. The Americans barred from entering Sardinia can, for instance, follow the example of their compatriot and Google founder Eric Schmidt, who applied for Cypriot citizenship, and seek alternatives. Others will consider additional citizenships as a kind of health insurance against future pandemics. The incidence of Covid-19 in Malta has been relatively low, and New Zealand has managed the pandemic extremely well. Both countries have a pathway to citizenship for investors. Investment citizenship is restricted to the very rich, but financial mortals can also acquire other citizenships through the luck of ancestry, or marriage, or other eligibility factors, and they will now have a reason to pursue it.

States, meanwhile, will have no incentive to clamp down on instrumentalized citizenship. Before Covid, they were already far along a path towards universal acceptance of dual citizenship, a key element in instrumentalized citizenship, and there are no signs that this acceptance will be reversed.

The growing number of people who were enjoying globalized lives are probably going to want to resume those lives sooner or later. With the distribution of effective vaccines, travel restrictions will ease, and interstate mobility will return. Citizenship may still hold great meaning in its traditional conception as a marker of home, but increasing numbers will be acquiring additional citizenships to protect their global privileges in the post-Covid era.

This article was first published in the Global Mobility Report 2021 Q1



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