July 18, 2014 11:38 am

Douglas Coupland: Duelling nationalities

What does citizenship really mean – and can you ever have too much of it?
An illustration by Ken Mayer Studios of passports for sale©Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland

This past week I’ve had several out-of-towners visiting, most of whom seem to have dual citizenships, if not three or four. Curious, I asked each visitor which citizenship they’d choose to keep if they were forced to keep just one. Their universal response was to inhale, stare off into the horizon, scratch their foreheads and hope that the subject would pass. I didn’t realise this was such a thorny topic.

“Come on, it can’t be that hard. American or British?”

Push comes to shove: British.

“Australian or EU?”

Australian.

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“Danish or American?”

Trick question: Danes are only allowed one citizenship – for now.

This got me to thinking, what is citizenship, anyway? Hi! I’m a citizen of wherever. I live there, vote there and pay taxes there – and if I’m kidnapped by malignant forces in some faraway land, my government will come running to my rescue. Seems fair enough, but if you’ve got four passports, can you reasonably expect one of your countries to come to your rescue? I mean, by that point, you’re basically a citizen of nowhere or, at the very most, you’ve got citizenship-lite, the citizenship equivalent of Ryanair. Hi, I know, I haven’t been voting or paying taxes or anything for a few decades, but I’m in a bit of a bind … can you ask one of your consul chaps to maybe trade me for a spy or something?

So if you’re going to have more than one citizenship, why not push the idea to the max and collect them in bulk? Maybe find some inexpensive citizenships and collect passports like stamps, or maybe hand them out as Christmas presents – or as birthday gifts, sort of like having a star named after you. So I began looking around at countries with low GDPs, thinking that maybe, for a notional fee, they might earn some free cash selling novelty citizenships that convey little functionality, but a dash of intrigue, to their owners. If Liechtenstein can make big bucks selling postage stamps, why not go into the boutique citizenship business? During a slow moment at the dinner table you can say, “Honey, I have a surprise for you. I know you think I forgot your birthday, but I didn’t. In fact I got you a little something. Here… open this.” This turns out to be an envelope containing citizenship to Malawi.

An illustration by Ken Mayer Studios of a new passport©Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland

“Oh honey. You shouldn’t have.”

But there’s a catch: Malawi only allows its citizens to be citizens of Malawi, and naturalised citizenship applicants must be from another Commonwealth country and have lived for five years in Malawi (or have lived there seven years if they’re from anywhere else). They must also intend to reside permanently in Malawi and renounce all other citizenships. It actually turns out that getting citizenship anywhere is pretty hard. In North Korea naturalised citizenship can only be granted by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, even if you’re vital to the country’s ongoing stability, like being a stadium flashcard technician. Vatican citizenship is both difficult and interesting to obtain. Citizenship is usually held only by those in office, such as cardinals or the Pope. Citizenship is, for most, lost when the term of office comes to an end, and children cannot inherit it from their parents. [Wait a second … children? Ed.]

Until this past month, one could essentially purchase Canadian citizenship for about C$100,000 – the interest on a five-year loan of 800K to the government – a price tag that was kept under the radar of the populace, who grew furious on learning it was actually true. It was also collectively humiliated to learn how relatively cheap the price tag was. Also in Canadian citizenship news, Texas senator and Tea party enthusiast Ted Cruz – a man with presidential aspirations – has formally renounced his Canadian citizenship. Born in Canada in 1970 to an American mother, Cruz has always been an American citizen and is technically eligible to run for president, but his opponents ran a vicious smear campaign cruelly branding him as “Canadian Ted”.

A way of rethinking the global web of overlapping allegiances would be to wonder what might happen if Earth instituted a planet-wide citizenship flush. Whoever you are, you now have to choose just one passport – so, which is it going to be? The answer would probably boil down to multiple factors, the largest including personal identity, ease of crossing borders, consular access while abroad and, of course, taxes. Sure, a low tax rate is great, but if I break my arm do I really want to spend $75,000 fixing it? Yes, popping in and out of Europe is terrific, but would I want to forfeit getting a lump in my throat if I hear my ex-national anthem playing? What exactly is citizenship? What does it mean to say I’m this and you’re that? The fact that almost every country on Earth makes it very difficult to become a citizen means that citizenship has to mean something. I think this week when I was asking my guests what citizenship they would choose if they could only have one, I was unwittingly taking them to task for trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Can you really have the best of all worlds, bing bang boom, whenever it suits your needs? I suspect polycitizenry is a creation of the 20th century, and a creation whose days are numbered. As the world gets ever more pay-per-use, the luxury of low-commitment semi-disposable allegiance seems, if nothing else, too expensive. If nothing else, Canada put a number on it.

Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’ is published by William Heinemann. Twitter: @dougcoupland

Illustrations by Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland

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