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Free movement in South America: towards a South American citizenship?

Updated: Sep 12, 2018

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

Over the last fifteen years a far-reaching free movement regime has been implemented in South America, with the three largest regional organizations (MERCOSUR, CAN, and UNASUR) concretely debating proposals for a South American citizenship. MERCOSUR is probably the best known and is, with 260 million consumers, potentially a lucrative market that may profit from many countries having to diversify their export destination in light of recent US protectionism.

The idea for a common citizenship in the region is not completely new. As noted by Diego Acosta, ‘already in the 19th century the Hispano-American regional citizen had emerged as a legal figure between the national and the foreigner’, often enjoying better treatment than foreigners in general as well as preferential access to nationality’. This, in turn, can be traced back to the broader concept of Hispanidad, which is also still invoked by Spain to maintain strong nationality ties with its former colonies and which has been broadened to include the descendants of the (Sephardic) Jewish community that was expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

Not only is the concept of South American citizenship often likened to that of EU Citizenship in terms of rights and eligible categories, but it has been suggested that South American citizenship may lead the way in allowing for the possibility to acquire regional South American citizenship for non-Latin Americans irrespective of first acquiring the nationality of a Latin American country. This is currently not possible in the EU, where access to European citizenship is still dependent on holding a Member State nationality, and despite EU Citizenship being destined to become the fundamental status of nationals of the EU member states, according to the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

South America seems an ideal test case to see how far the idea of regional citizenship can reach. Sharing a common language, religion and relatively stable borders since acquiring independence in the early 19th century, did Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz not already write in the Labyrinth of Solitude that ‘even now, a century and a half [after gaining independence from Spain], no one can explain satisfactorily the “national” differences between Argentineans and Uruguayans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians, Guatemalans and Mexicans’?

Still, Latin America has a long way to go and South American citizenship will likely face the same hindrances as EU citizenship in Europe. Again in the words of Acosta, 'a number of challenges remain to the full realization of the South American free mobility vision. It seems difficult to establish a future regional citizenship exclusively through intergovernmental means. Any supranational efforts [similar to the EU] at establishing a new status would need to convince national authorities and legislatures that such a citizenship would not make the national status obsolete, but rather would strengthen it and provide further rights and protection for thousands of their nationals abroad'.

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