Citizenship in the Era of Nation-as-a-Service

The shock of Brexit may finally disrupt borders and belonging.

Image: Flickr / Daniel Lobo (CC BY 2.0)

Somewhere in the depths of the messy and multi-directional fallout of Brexit, an interesting countertrend is crystallizing. Even as millions of voters around the world loudly embrace slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Vote Leave, Take Control,” the notion of fixed national citizenship has probably never faced such a moment of reshaping. What started as a referendum on political membership for the UK may be the trigger for a radical redefinition of citizenship as a concept in the near future — more like a subscription membership than a birthright.

One immediate casualty of Brexit has been the notion of lifelong citizenship, most easily observed by a dramatic surge in applications for advantageous passports from countries like Ireland — part of the British Isles, but not the UK, and therefore remaining in the European Union. Facing an unprecedented run on applications forms, the Irish government went as far as to ask aspiring passport-swappers to take a breath as they looked to take advantage of recent Irish ancestry to maintain a European foothold. For many young British students and professionals who have staked their bet on remaining part of, and taking advantage of, the EU as a political, social and economic project.

Likewise, there is rising apprehension among immigrants about being booted from the UK. This led to an increase in the number of EU citizens applying for British passports in the run up to the June 23rd referendum, helping to fuel a 29% increase in applicants from 2014 to 2015. UK immigration lawyers also reported seeing a rush of new clients in the weeks following the shock result.

Nationality-jumping hasn’t solely been a matter for those looking to protect relationships, investments or livelihoods. Even as they’re sending missions to attract businesses to change countries, some national leaders are thinking aloud about how to sweeten the pot for those considering their citizenship status. A week after the Brexit vote, one German minister suggested re-opening the prospect of dual citizenship for UK citizens, while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suggested British students in Italy could apply for Italian passports in the event of actual Brexit.

E-citizenship is already in reach

Amid all of this, Europe’s first hybrid digital residency program, Estonia’s e-residency offering, also reported a jump in applicants post-referendums. Though it doesn’t currently convey any right to actually live in the Baltic state or provide other EU residency rights, it does provide an ability to digitally open a bank account, start and run a business. Some have taken Estonia’s invitations to digitally move countries as a precautionary virtual foothold in the Eurozone nonetheless — just in case things go from shaky to worse.

Some national leaders are thinking aloud about how to sweeten the pot for those considering their citizenship status.

Unlike their Irish counterparts, Estonia’s e-residency team have been encouraging Britons — and citizens worldwide — to register for the program, which has approved just over 11,000 e-citizens since it launched in 2015. The country is planning for up to 10 million e-residents by 2025, an enormous virtual population for a nation of only 1.35 million.

One British colleague took the Estonian e-plunge directly after the referendum, as a kind of bookmark for the European ideal. For Dan Hill, who runs a digital design team for Arup in London and has lived and worked in Australia, Italy, and Finland as well as the UK, borders are as much a design problem as legal designation. “I guess I liked the idea of citizenship to the EU, not bounded by national borders, and although [e-citizenship] is not that, it is a step towards that.”

Single sign-on citizens

Is a form of digital citizenship the way forward in a post-Brexit world? Unlike, say, the collapse of the Soviet Union which reimposed old nationalities almost overnight a quarter century ago, the UK’s shock referendum result comes at a moment when global flows of trade, travel and technology have laid the groundwork for new ways of thinking about, and constructing, citizenship. It’s also shaking a generation that defines itself less through a national lens than through global connections.

Younger, more mobile, tech-enabled citizens who have grown up in a period of relative border permeability have tended to see themselves more as global or regional citizens first, according to various surveys done prior to the Brexit vote. Interestingly, this sentiment has been growing fastest in countries, like India and China, where middle classes have most recently emerged. These middle-class, relatively wealthy digital nomads have been the target of criticism post-Brexit as having escaped the negative fallout of globalization, but the desire to attract their skills — and taxes — has pushed governments to compete to meet their needs through new visa programs and new offers of hybrid citizenship. (Correspondingly, Harun Onder, a World Bank economist blogging at Brookings Institution, has posited that countries with older populations tend to lean more nationalistic.)

The Brexit situation specifically sparked some novel proposals for what could best be described as “fractional citizenship,” with holders paying costs in various countries based on length of residency. Many digitally native young in both developed and emerging markets have already been nudged into paying-as-you-go for much of the utilities in their lives, so it’s not surprising such an idea would surface for citizenship — and the hard and soft services, from health care to infrastructure to education to security, it acts as cover for.

Next stop: nation-as-a-service?

Technology as a transport mechanism for identity is not new. Borderless platforms such as the biggest global social networks, or national digital identity programs like those of Singapore, the UK and the Netherlands, or emerging tools such the blockchain could redefine how we identify ourselves — not just domestically, but internationally. Already some 70-odd countries have biometric passports, which are effectively simple digital IDs with paper backups. There are already several projects afoot to develop prototype blockchain-based passports, and at least one country in the Middle East is rumored to be looking at blockchain-based e-citizenship, according to a source close to the project.

As more countries become aggressive about attracting the digitally enabled, and build out more digital services of their own, the idea of nation-as-a-service comes into sharper focus. A country defined as a platform of digital services, social and cultural values, and economic rules, looks more like the cloud-based services many of us rely on every day — Dropbox, Spotify, Gmail and so on — than the nation state as defined in the 17th century. While national identity is still a more complex notion, how that identity moves across borders is becoming more fluid.

A thought experiment: Could a country offer you a range of citizenship subscription options, and bill your taxes based on “membership” and services used? If countries like Germany, Italy and Estonia are willing to reconsider what constitutes citizenship just to keep up with broader global pressures of economic competitiveness and migration, what package of benefits and protections might a forward-thinking country offer economic migrants, or extend to refugees seeking assistance while residing in another country? What if tapping the benefits of a third country wasn’t only the privilege of the wealthy, but something as easy as signing up for Netflix?

A country defined as a platform of digital services, social and cultural values, and economic rules, looks more like the cloud-based services many of us rely on every day.

Right now, a migrant has to go through the complicated process of traveling to or visiting the physical embassy of, applying to, and waiting to enter a country in which they want to resettle. This involves both complex tangles of paperwork—and now data—that creates both intended and unintended friction. As a result, we have probably millions of people around the world stalled in limbo, awaiting the possibility of gaining new protections or opportunities.

Air Canada’s #testdrivecanada ad campaign.

Many European politicians have spent the days since Brexit openly questioning the borders of countries, mulling the possibility of independent city-states, and talking about dissolving longstanding political unions. It seems inevitable, then, given the stakes for citizens from these political upheavals, that citizenship might also be ripe for disruption. The fluidity of movement that’s been quietly, expensively — and exclusively — available to the super rich for decades may be entering its moment of actual democratization, and citizenship (or many citizenships) may just be a click away.


Thanks to Susan Cox-Smith, Natalie Kane and Sjef van Gaalen for their feedback on this essay.