Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 8 August 2020

The pillars of identity are no longer valid in today's fast-changing world

It is no longer easy to say who you are, never mind where you will end up

Egyptian immigrant Mohamed Ali Kenawy, who was attacked by four men screaming "Go back to your country!", attends to a customer at his food stand in the Copacabana neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro on August 24, 2017. Apu gomes / AFP
Egyptian immigrant Mohamed Ali Kenawy, who was attacked by four men screaming "Go back to your country!", attends to a customer at his food stand in the Copacabana neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro on August 24, 2017. Apu gomes / AFP

Identity has never been a fixed concept, and yet never has it been in more flux than it is today.

Rules on nationality and residency are being upended ever more rapidly as the world responds to a succession of tumultuous developments.

Toxic politics on every continent almost always throws open the most basic of questions: “Who do you think you are?”

Nationality should be simple. Either a person is born somewhere and is granted the paperwork decreeing citizenship or a person moves somewhere and is granted that citizenship.

For too many people, however, these equations no longer hold true. For some, the rights they once relied on are being withdrawn. For others, the taint of once innocuous foreign ties has become suspect.

These are not narrow thoughts about immigration. The concept of nationality in Western European immigration has already been profoundly altered. Nick Timothy, formerly UK prime minister Theresa May’s most powerful sidekick, used a column this week to look at how national identity is a civic, not ethnic, matter. Migration, he argued, needs to be transparent, rules-based and above all, controlled, because it is a pathway to citizenship.


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There is more than an echo of Timothy’s outlook in comments in Germany by the leader of the small centrist, Free Democratic Party.

Christian Lindner argues that there should be four doors in German immigration policy. The first door is marked asylum. Individuals persecuted in their homeland can enter. The second door is marked refugee. Those who flee war and violence can find a safe haven in Germany. The third door is for so-called qualified migrants. It allows skilled workers and others with in-demand talents to come to Germany. The fourth door is marked "shut".

If only the matter was that clear cut.

Tighter controls in response to large population shifts and the criminal underbelly of global trafficking makes the headlines. But the squeeze against foreign ties is going much deeper.

At the bizarre end of the spectrum is the threat posed to the centre-right Australian government’s hold on power by recent revelations that the deputy prime minister is a New Zealander. These are two countries that are brother immigrant-built nations, once so close they shared a currency. The legend of joint sacrifice in war is so strong as to be a founding myth.

So what is the problem? It is that Australian law says MPs must not be citizens of a foreign power. Barnaby Joyce, the deputy PM, and a handful of other MPs now face disqualification in a case due to be heard in the courts in October. Mr Joyce’s father was born in New Zealand and, as a result, he is a Kiwi. An adverse ruling would force the MPs resignation.

With a one-seat majority and behind in the polls, it is likely that the ruling party would fall from power in an early general election.

The Brexit vote in Britain last year has jeopardised the future of millions as Europeans lose automatic rights to live anywhere in the EU.

Last week, the British government apologised after mistakingly issuing dozens of letters to Europeans, telling them they had been selected for deportation. One of the recipients, a Finnish historian specialising in early medieval British history, was told she was liable for detention prior to her removal from the UK. She is married to a British man. The error could not have been more egregious. Britain has not yet left the EU and is only set to exit the union in 2019.


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Those fearing future lurches in residency rights are not just Europeans in Britain. The hundreds of thousands of British nationals in the EU are also on notice. Even if there is a deal protecting existing individual arrangements, it is not clear a Briton living in France could take that right to Germany in future.

One of the great generational resentments triggered by the Brexit vote is that the young will forfeit the privilege of living and working across Europe. Millions of British citizens have applied for citizenship, mainly through family ties, from countries remaining in the EU, notably Ireland and Italy.

The long-standing concept of a British Isles composed of "home nations" is also under a shadow. Can British and Irish citizens continue to maintain a common citizenship – the right to travel, work and vote in each state – when one country is in the EU and the other is outside it? What would be the arrangements if Scotland holds a second referendum and becomes independent?

Set against this backdrop, Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexico border is not an outlier and neither are his mutterings about a crackdown on the millions of undocumented residents in the US, which vividly puts these issues at the centre of many "American" lives too.

It is no longer easy to say who you are, never mind where you will end up.

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