What is a Citizen?

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Citizenship is the legal recognition of belonging to a particular nation, state or commonwealth. It brings with it rights and responsibilities such as voting, welfare, education, etc. Citizenship is primarily a matter of law but it can also indicate a sense of membership, loyalty and responsibility and of a shared cultural heritage or history. It can therefore be a powerful motivating force in people’s lives and can help shape their identity. Citizenship is also often defined at a subnational level, for example as citizenship of an individual canton within Switzerland or of the Aland region in Finland (see municipal and regional citizenship).

As a political concept, the notion of citizen was developed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle believed that a person’s public and private life were interconnected, and that to be a citizen was to take an active part in society. This idea was reflected in ancient Greek legislation which made it an obligation for citizens to participate in the running of the community. In the modern world, the notion of citizenship has come to be closely associated with the right to a wide range of civil and social rights, which are conferred by the state. This is a broad conception of citizenship which has become increasingly important, and which is reflected in policies on immigration and integration as well as in the debates over ‘naturalisation’.

In recent times, the idea of citizenship has been given further momentum by a number of politicians who have emphasized the relation between citizenship and ideals of civic engagement or ‘active’ citizenry. The Labour government in the UK based much of its citizenship policy on this theme, and introduced major changes to processes for acquiring formal citizenship through naturalisation. This was in an attempt to raise the status of citizenship and make it more meaningful than a mere bureaucratic process. In practice, however, this has led to an instrumentalisation of citizenship, which risks turning it into a ‘tick box’ exercise in a wider debate on migration and integration.

It is interesting to note that there has been a decline in applications for British citizenship from those who have moved to the country as migrant workers since EU Enlargement, even though these groups are the most likely to enjoy full citizenship rights. This may be because, as they are already citizens of the EU, they have the most liberal rights to live and work in the country, and thus less reason to acquire formal citizenship. Citizenship is, in short, a highly complex concept, and it is hard to give a definitive definition of it. The concept varies from nation to nation, and the definition of who is a citizen has changed over time as a result of political upheavals and reforms. However, there is a general consensus that citizenship is a vital concept in any democratic nation and is central to the operation of a democracy. It is essential for a healthy democracy that citizens are actively engaged in the affairs of their country and that they are treated fairly.