This week I was at a seminar where representatives of government institutions responsible for the integration of migrants in EU countries presented their ideas on the symbolic aspects of citizenship and the content of common values. The topic sounded interesting, and I have to confess I expected a genuine discussion on what makes up the core of democratic citizenship and related values in our societies, and how governments could strengthen the appeal of civic participation for recent migrants. The discussion, however, turned out to be about vastly different issues.
First, we were treated to several discourses on the French republican values by speakers invited by the host institution – the new Ministry for Immigration and National Identity of France. I found the speeches interesting in that they more or less completely avoided references to civic particiaption as the core of today’s citizenship, but harped on the need to strengthen French national identity and even lamented the ‘weakening of traditional institutions – army, church and school.’ Within a few minutes’ space, a speaker managed to refer to the sacrosanct laicité (the secular nature of the state) and at the same time to assert that the church played a significant role in integrating migrants in the nineteenth century. This, for me, created implications of double standards – the role of religion was not denied, as long as it was not a foreign religion.
The next presentation on the agenda was by a representative of the Paris Prefecture. It was entirely about the ceremonies organised to celebrate the conferral of French citizenship on former migrants. The interior design of the room where the ceremonies take place was described in great detail, followed by references to tears of joy and the benevolent presence of high officials.
Citizenship cermonies seem to be all the rage in integration policies these days. The Danish, the French, the British have them already and the Estonians are keen to follow suite. It seems the the British so far are the only ones who are serious about making the rules of the game fair and who in the future might apply the same criteria of required civic knowledge and commitment to all persons who are about to become citizens – no mater if ‘hereditary’ or naturalised. Citizenship education is obligatory in British schools. The newly initiated Citizenship review led by Lord Goldsmith is likely to propose citizenship ceremonies for British citizens coming of age, not just for persons with migration background, and the two target audiences could be ‘mixed’. Such ceremonies could take place in real-life public spaces, including shopping centres, because these are genuine spaces of social life in today’s societies.
Personally, I think that this new outlook on citizenship ceremonies is the only one that makes sense. Requiring persons with migration background to learn things about the functioning of local political system which a large chunk of the native population never learned and asking them to pledge allegiance to the state in a way that is more binding than that for ‘born’ citizens is the current trend in many countries, but it remains dubious from the point of view of equality of all citizens, ‘old’ and ‘new’. It seems that Britain may show the rest of us the way ahead.