[UPDATE 9.12.2016, 1515] Guy Verhofstadt has given some more detail about how important this associate citizenship thing is to him – see The Independent. However all the main issues with it I outline below still stand!
There has been quite some heated reaction to Guy Verhofstadt saying he backs the idea of individual Brits somehow being able to retain EU citizenship after Brexit, for a fee (Guardian story here). This builds on the initial proposal of Luxembourg liberal MEP Charles Goerens.
This is a pretty complicated and multi-faceted debate, and I will try to take apart each aspect of it.
First, how does EU citizenship even work? Essentially it is not a citizenship in its own right, but it is a series of rights conferred upon an individual thanks to the country whose citizenship the individual holds being a Member State of the EU. Hence the idea of being able to carve out some EU citizenship when the UK is no longer in the EU is going to be legally very complex (but hell, what with Brexit is legally easy?)
Second, what rights does EU citizenship confer – broadly some political rights (like the right to vote in EP elections, and stand as a candidate, even in another EU country), and freedom of movement rights. There’s a handy summary here. If associate EU citizenship is to have any meaning it would have to deal with those two issues. Even then it would be rather thin gruel – EU citizenship has its uses, but the rights it confers are limited – even calling efforts to simplify the lives of Brits in the EU post-Brexit “citizenship” might be stretching it.
But to the practicalities…
On the freedom of movement issue – this is only relevant if the UK were to go for an outside-the-single-market variant of Brexit. If the UK went for the Norway option, freedom of movement could be preserved – Norwegians can live and work wherever they wish in the EU.
Were the UK to go for a hard Brexit, the question then is how would the rest of the EU react? Would it want to allow UK citizens to freely work and live in the rest of the EU – as a right – or not? And would there even be a common EU position on this issue? As this debate between Michael E. Smith and Kirsty Hughes shows, this isn’t altogether simple to solve – as work rights for third county nationals are up to individual Member States currently. The rest of the EU might reason that allowing Brits freedom to move and work within the EU would be advantageous, and the question would then be if this could be conferred as a matter of right, or whether some sort of simplified visa system would suffice. Conferring freedom of movement for Brits in the EU as a right (when EU citizens would not have that right in the UK) would give meaning to the associate citizenship idea, but would generate political backlash. Were the solution instead simply to offer simplified visa procedures for Brits in the EU, that does not justify calling the system citizenship.
On the voting rights issue – here there is a precedent, oddly from the UK that gives Commonwealth citizens the right to vote in UK general elections, providing the person is permanently resident in Britain (although that person could still need a visa to stay in the UK), while not all Commonwealth states reciprocate. Another example is that some Swiss cantons give voting rights to non-Swiss (final paragraph here). So the EU could offer voting rights in EP elections to Brits who are permanently resident in the EU, possibly but not contingent upon the UK ensuring EU citizens resident in the UK still had the right to vote in local and regional elections there. But the essence is that worldwide voting rights for non-nationals are not all perfectly reciprocal.
There has also been some argument about the costs of associate citizenship, and whether this would be justified. Sadly we already have the commoditisation of citizenship – it costs €255 to apply in Germany, and the UK has a bunch of fees for citizenship applications, some more than £1000 (PDF). I hence cannot see why a one-off fee to get associate citizenship ought to be a show stopper – although I personally have problems imposing fees on things that ought to be universal.
Some Brexiteers – like Andrew Bridgen MP (bottom of The Guardian article here) – have attacked the plans. I see these objections from the UK side as sour grapes – Britain as a country has voted to leave, but that does not mean efforts from individual Brits to retain some of the rights that matter to them is wrong. Bridgen sees this as a means to subvert the Brexit process, an argument that also does not hold – the EU is happy to let the UK, as a country, leave, but I think politically is quite right to try to see what it can do for the individual Brits who treasure what the EU gave them. Verhofstadt seems to be better at making an appeal to the 48% than any British politicians are currently!
Essentially all of this boils down to three issues. First, it is about the EU seeing Brits as individuals and seeking to confer rights on them as such, and to offer something to those individuals regardless of the negotiation stance taken by the British state. Second, any associate citizenship system would require both the EU institutions and the remaining Member States of the European Union to not see things in a perfectly reciprocal manner – it would mean conferring more rights on Brits than the UK would confer on EU citizens there (and that could lead to problems). Third, the legal complexities of making this whole thing work are hard, but not insurmountable.