Welcome to E-stonia! E-residence and Citizenship in an Electronic Republic

Costica Dumbrava | A citizen with a view | published on GLOBALCIT blog, European University Institute | September 2015

In 2014 Estonia launched an e-residence scheme through which non-resident foreigners could obtain an Estonian digital identity card. The digital card allows people to access a series of digital services such as enabling them to create and use electronic signatures, launch and manage companies, do online banking, etc. The procedure for obtaining the card is quite simple. Apart from providing several standard items such as application form, national ID, and personal photo, the applicants must pay a fee (€50 in 2014) and submit a written explanation “concerning the intention to use the digital ID and the circumstance of its use”. If granted, the digital card will be issued within 15 days. The policy rationale for the Estonian e-residency card is economic. The emphasis is on encouraging entrepreneurship and attracting business by removing administrative barriers as well as bypassing migration regulations. By aiming to attract 10 million e-Estonians by 2025 in a country of 1.3 million citizens, the government seeks to boost Estonia’s competitiveness on the global market. This adds to other Estonian business friendly measures such as tax-free for profit reinvestment and championing digital services. Notwithstanding the economic merits of the e-residence scheme, it is worth exploring its implications for citizenship. Is e-residence a membership status? Does e-residence triggers claims of membership as physical residence usually does?

The promise of e-citizenship

Technological development in the area of information and communication (ICTs) has created new opportunities and challenges for the ways in which citizens practice and experience democratic citizenship. Worries about the quality of citizenship in contemporary democracies are nurtured by perceptions about thr crisis of traditional democratic institutions as evidenced by low voter turnout, the decrease in public participation in civic and political life and cynicism towards political institutions. In this context, ICTs entertains hopes for re-invigorating citizenship and democratic institutions.

It is believed that ICTs could deliver new means for public engagement and deliberation, e.g. e-voting platforms, e-government services, online forums, focus groups, opinion polls, referendums and petitions.[1] By providing new channels for the expression of opinions and preferences, discussion and deliberation, ICTs could enable citizens to develop the civic skills and attitudes that are deemed essential for the well functioning of democracy. The potentially inclusive character of e-participation raises hopes not only about the deepening of (national) citizenship but also about the widening of citizenship in view of establishing global citizenship.[2] It is now conceivable that billions of people could be brought together in a common global electronic agora where they could deliberate about global policy issues and, if need be, cast electronic votes.

Despite its advantages, e-citizenship initiatives raise a number of issues. Firstly, in the conditions of unequal individual access to technology, these programs may lead to distorted representation due to the existing “digital divide” between technologically abled and technologically disabled citizens.[3] There is also evidence that digital divides tend to draw upon and reiterate pre-existing “analogue” divisions based on race, ethnicity and class.[4] Secondly, apart from enabling citizens to access public services and to engage in a potentially global public sphere, ICTs may also serve states to better survey citizens, borders and to re-gain control over the public agenda.[5]

Citizenship and residence

International migration and the development of transnational networks have triggered a partial de-linking of citizenship from territorial membership[6] This challenges the traditional conception of citizenship as co-territorial membership, in which citizenship inclusion and practices are strictly bound by territorial borders. Whereas, historically, the scope of citizenship has never been congruent with that of territory (i.e. there have always been groups of resident that were excluded from citizenship), physical presence in the territory has long been regarded as a basic prerequisite for membership of a state.

Residence plays a crucial role in political theories on admission to citizenship. The debate about who should be admitted as citizen gravitates around the idea of a “genuine connection” with the country. The idea was consecrated by the International Court of Justice in the Nottebohm case, when the Court asserted that citizenship is “a legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interests, and sentiments, together with the existence of reciprocal rights and duties.” Whereas this definition of citizenship is notoriously vague, in legal discourse genuine connection is strongly associated with residence. For example, the European Convention on Nationality allows states to withdraw citizenship from citizens who habitually reside abroad and who “lack a genuine link” provided that they do not become stateless.

Many political theorists argue for the naturalisation of immigrants in virtue of their long-term residence and of the normative implications derived from residence. Michael Walzer[7] made a compelling case for the inclusion of immigrants in order to avoid creating a class of people who, like in-house servants, are ruled by citizens without being able to participate in the making of the rules. Ruth Rubio-Marín[8] and Joseph Carens[9] claimed that immigrants should be granted access to citizenship in virtue of the fact that, as residents, they have become full members of the societies in which they live. According to Rainer Bauböck’s[10] concept of stakeholder citizenship, residence plays a key role because having resided in the territory of the state should be seen as an indicator of immigrants’ stake in the political community. Residence in the country thus generates strong claims to legal and political inclusion (citizenship). In practice, however, residence alone has never been a sufficient condition for admission to citizenship. It could even be argued that the role of residence has been downgraded as countries have generally lowered the minimum period of residence required for naturalization purpose[11] and, more recently, shifted the emphasis from physical presence towards civic-cultural integration, e.g. language requirements and citizenship tests.[12]

The rapid expansion of transnational networks in recent decades and the accompanying diaspora policies adds a new challenges to the traditional link between residence and citizenship. An increasing number of states have launched special initiatives, policies, programs aiming at reaching out to emigrant diasporas.[13] This includes the extension of formal entitlements to citizenship and political rights as well as the symbolic incorporation of emigrants into the official narrative of national membership. In this context, easy access to information and the variety of channels of communication and engagement made available by technological development seem to add normative weight to emigrants’ claim to extra-territorial citizenship.

Welcome to E-stonia!

The Estonian government made clear that e-residence is not intended to substitute or to lead to citizenship status. The digital identity also does not grant entitlements to residence in Estonia. However, there are several features in the design and the dis oursive framing of the scheme that brings e-residence closer to citizenship. Firstly, the e-residence status aims to enable people to “participate in public and private administration of Estonia” (emphasis added). Or participation is an important dimension of democratic citizenship, one that can trigger normative claims of inclusion. Secondly, one of the conditions for obtaining e-residence status is that the person “has links with the country of Estonia or a reasonable interest in using public e-services in Estonia.” The formulation of “links with the country” is conspicuously close to the formula “genuine connection”, which is often used in order to designate citizenship. Thirdly, by insisting on attracting business for the sake of boosting the economic development of the country, the scheme brings in the element of contribution to the common good. Or modern citizenship was based on the “contributions of the ‘common men’”[14] through work, taxes, military service, etc. If e-residents are seen as contributors to the Estonian society, they can also be seen as having a relevant stake in the society and thus enfitled to full membership.

The idea of contributory citizenship is not as abstract as it seems. There are countries that grant citizenship to people who are seen as contributing to the country, e.g. through investment or other financial assets.[15] Although these practices are normatively controversial, claims based on (economic) contribution play an important role in citizenship debates, such as on citizenship entitlements for emigrants.[16] In the European Union the association between citizenship and investment reached the spotlight in 2013 when Malta proposed to grant citizenship to people who invested a certain sum in the country without having to take up residence.[17] The proposal prompted the intervention of the European Commission, which deemed that the initiative contravened Malta’s obligations to the EU because it circumvented the common EU migration policies. No such concerns can be raised in the case of Estonian e-residence scheme because the benefits provided by it rely exactly on non-immigration. However, the association between e-residence and citizenship raises normative issues in the context in which physical residence becomes less important as a normative basis for membership and when contribution-based arguments for admission to citizenship gain broader support.

As with other digital initiatives, the Estonian e-residence scheme also raises issues about equal access, privacy and state surveillance. But as long as the scheme is designed and presented as a mere bundle of services and transactions empowered by technological innovation, there are no important concerns with regard to its implications for citizenship. If e-residence is framed in the normatively rich language of participation and contribution, it may trigger claims to membership.


[1] Chadwick, Andrew. 2006. Internet politics: States, citizens, and new communication technologies. Oxford University Press.

[2] Bentivegna, Sara. 2006. “Rethinking politics in the world of ICTs.” European Journal of Communication 21 (3): 331-43.

[3] Van Dijk, Jan, and Kenneth Hacker. 2003. “The digital divide as a complex and dynamic phenomenon.” The information society 19 (4): 315-26.

[4] Mossberger, Karen, Caroline J Tolbert, and Ramona S McNeal. 2008. “Digital Citizenship: The Internet.” Society and Participation. MIT Press, Cambridge.

[5] Karakaya Polat, Rabia, and Lawrence Pratchett. 2013. “Citizenship in the age of the Internet: a comparative analysis of Britain and Turkey.” Citizenship Studies 18 (1): 63-80

[6] Soysal, Yasemin N. 1994. Limits of Citizenship. Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. University of Chicago Press.

[7] Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Basic Books.

[8] Rubio-Marín, Ruth. 2006. “Transnational Politics and the Democratic Nation-State: Normative Challenges of Expatriate Voting and Nationality Retention of Emigrants.” New York University Law Review 81: 117-47.

[9] Carens, Joseph H. 2013 The Ethics of Immigration. Oxford University Press.

[10] Bauböck, Rainer. 2007. “Stakeholder Citizenship and Transnational Political Participation: a Normative Evaluation of External Voting.” Fordham Law Review 75: 2393-447.

[11] Groot (de), Gerard-René, and Maarten P Vink. 2013. “The relationship between citizenship and residence in the citizenship laws of the Member States of the European Union.” CARIM-India Research Report 2013/25. San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute.

[12] Joppke, Christian. 2008. “Comparative Citizenship: A Restrictive Turn in Europe?” Law & Ethics of Human Rights 2 (1).

[13] Collyer, Michael. 2013. Emigration nations: Policies and ideologies of emigrant engagement. Palgrave Macmillan.

[14] Isin, Engin F., and Bryan S. Turner. 2007. “Investigating Citizenship: An Agenda for Citizenship Studies.” Citizenship Studies 11 (1):5-17, p.6.

[15] Dzankic, Jelena. 2012. “The pros and cons of ius pecuniae: investor citizenship in comparative perspective.” EUI RSCAS Working Paper 2012/14.

[16] Barry, K. 2006. “Home and away: The construction of citizenship in an emigration context.” New York University Law Review 81 (11).

[17] Shachar, Ayelet, and Rainer Bauböck. 2014. “Should Citizenship be for Sale?” EUI RSCAS Working Paper 2014/01, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute.