Some citizens are more equal

The revised IIP scheme launched last Thursday may have satisfied the European Commission, but one of the main bones of contention has been left unaddressed.

Cartoon: Mark Scicluna
Cartoon: Mark Scicluna

The revised IIP scheme launched last Thursday may have satisfied the European Commission, but one of the main bones of contention has been left unaddressed. Even if beneficiaries of this scheme now have to reside in Malta for a limited period, the scheme itself has also exacerbated a two-tier citizenship situation, whereby unequal conditions and procedures may apply to different applicants.

One can argue that the entire debate also exposed a very widespread basic misunderstanding of what it even means to be a citizen of Malta. By failing to include even the most basic residence condition in its first scheme, the government betrayed its own perception of a Maltese/EU/Schengen passport as just another resource to be monetised like any other.

But even objections to the scheme raised questions about our attitudes towards nationality issues. Early fears included that newly-minted Maltese nationals would be eligible to vote in and even contest general elections. And yet the ability to vote and run for political office are part and parcel of the entire package deal that is citizenship in any country: it almost forms part of the definition of the word. Nonetheless, voices were heard arguing that citizens who availed of the IIP scheme should be automatically barred from the electoral register and disenfranchised in their own country, which would de facto cement the old Orwellian maxim of some animals being more equal than others.

All this contrasts with the perceptions of nationality - and by extension, national pride - that is manifest in other countries. American citizenship is perhaps the most coveted worldwide; and the USA - being a nation founded on immigration - employs rigorous naturalisation procedures aimed not just as creating new nationals, but also at imbibing them with a profound sense of belonging to the adoptive homeland.

Whether this always succeeds is another question - but the local debate has exposed a complete lack of any such corresponding national narrative that can even be bought into. The upshot of the agreement with the Commission in part addresses this lacuna: government has been forced to modify its definition of Maltese nationality, to make it contain at least a nominal connection with Malta. But even if the revised scheme is now acceptable to the Commission, the new residency requirement only exacerbates the existing double standards between paying customers, and others who apply for citizenship through existing channels.

Under the new scheme, applicants are required to reside a minimum of one year - which works out at 183 calendar days - in Malta before becoming fully Maltese. But under current naturalisation laws, non-EU nationals living and paying taxes in Malta can spend up to as much as 18 to 20 years before they are considered eligible for citizenship, even though they would have been contributing to the economy all that time.

Considering that there are many bona fide migrants from Europe, Africa and elsewhere who are creating genuine links with Malta and contributing to society as a whole, the fact that richer candidates are blatantly 'fast-tracked' - even if they might have no intention of living in the country at all - can only be construed as a gargantuan injustice.

Another issue concerns the selective application of the most basic criteria traditionally reserved for citizenship: ius soli, and ius sanguinii. These correspond to the right of birth in a given territory, and the right of citizenship by blood (family) connection. Both are considered valid grounds for eligibility to citizenship in most European countries and elsewhere; yet Malta at present does not recognise ius soli, so people born to permanent residents (in some cases even to citizens) of Malta are not automatically considered nationals and have to apply at the age of 18.

This contrasts sharply with the broad definition offered to beneficiaries of the ius sanguinii method. Since 2000, relaxed nationalisation processes have enabled thousands of Australian citizens of Maltese descent to right to obtain EU nationality and live and work anywhere in Europe.

Yet not only did no one in Malta or Europe ever complain; but to add insult to injury, the Maltese Australians themselves organised a petition against the current IIP scheme.

With the more immediate controversy surrounding this scheme now over, perhaps the time has come to finally address these and other anomalies by means of a new and harmonised naturalisation policy. The precise mechanics can be established separately, though it would be wise to try to learn from the IIP mistakes: to invest less discretion in the hands of individual minister, and to open up as broad a consultation exercise as possible beforehand.

A new policy should at minimum provide all migrants a clear framework within which to work towards obtaining Maltese citizenship: for instance, after a fixed period of time, when they have jobs, a family life, permanent residence, and so on. This will not only replace an existing legislative black hole concerning irregular migrants; but also address the current issue of migrant workers being inevitably drawn into the black economy.

Indeed there are many good practical reasons to revise existing regulations concerning citizenship. But the most pressing remains the government's own electoral commitment to create a more just and humane society for everyone.

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