Andres Reimann: E-residency — a new form of Citizenship emerging?

Andres Reimann: E-residency — a new form of Citizenship emerging?
Autor: Andres Reimann

In her 1958 book “The Human Condition”, German philosopher Hannah Arendt, when writing about Rousseau, action and natality, drew a conclusion — individuals undergo a second birth, a birth in the public sphere, a birth as citizens. The topic is still relevant 60 years later. Whether we are discussing giving ethnic Russians the rights of a citizen in Estonia; hospitality towards strangers in the land of another in the context of world citizenship or even constructing a new one, an identity which replaces the traditional public sphere with cyber and is foremost advertised as a tool in the name of best economic calculation. Hence citizenship surely is worth discussing in the 21st century.


In order to discuss Estonian e-residency, we shall look down the line of history and see how it all began — how Estonia became to be known as the “digital Powerhouse” of the world (Think Outside the Borders 2018). The first steps towards a digital turn were taken in the early 1990-s when state institutions started using the Internet for everyday work — FTP servers were created and governmental web pages started to pop up. Throughout the decade authorities discovered and implemented different cyber-related tools and by the year 2000 the symbol of digital Estonia was established — the institutions were “paper-free” (Velmet 2015).

In parallel to these, more or less e-state related developments, in 1997 a programme called “The Tiger Leap” was launched. In contrast, the goal of this programme was not just to make working easier and environmentally friendly, but to promote democracy and widen the semantic field of the term “public sphere” by simply educating people on the cyber issues and informing them about the opportunities to make themselves heard via the Internet (Velmet 2015). I mark this as the first step towards e-residency. As the idea of a person for whom the state borders do not exist and Lennart Meri’s example of an Estonian whose voice is as important and heard as the voice of an American because of the Internet was first publicly acknowledged back then.

The next step was the launch of the ID-card in 2002. This created the opportunity to move the elections to the Internet and in the local elections of 2005, the method was successfully tested. The aims of the ID-card project were to involve more and especially young people in the public sphere via online platforms (for example Täna Otsustan Mina); through the presence, give citizens better knowledge concerning their opportunities in the state and to increase participatory democracy. At the same time, the creation of the ID-card gave the programme managers the idea to start a new project — ID-card for foreigners, which was later coined as e-residency. In 2014 the e-residency programme was launched and Toomas Hendrik Ilves handed the first digital-ID batch over to Edward Lucas, a columnist for The Economist and the first e-resident of Estonia (Friedman 2014).

What is e-residency? Taking into account the history of digital Estonia one would probably presume it is a universal platform for participation in political decision-making, but it is not. Quoting Estonian historian Aro Velmet, “the e-state vision that Bloomberg and Foreign Affairs are writing about and which is dominating in our news as well has almost nothing to do with online democracy. The progress in Bloomberg means the cost-effectiveness of the public sector, fast bureaucracy in business and good digital infrastructure” (Velmet 2015). Hence, when considering e-residency, it is not what people were dreaming about in the early 2000-s, a mechanism or tool for democracy.

According to the webpage of e-residency, it is a government-issued digital identity that empowers entrepreneurs around the world to set up and run a location-independent business. An e-resident is able to start a company online from anywhere in the world; start an EU company without a local director; access the EU Single Market and cross-border capital; declare business taxes online and join the community of around 40 000 e-residents (couldn’t find the exact number, but the number of applications is about 48 000) (Think Outside the Borders 2018). Applications are only welcomed from entrepreneurs (for example digital nomads, freelancers, startup companies and EU companies). To conclude, e-residency is a tool for entrepreneurs to easily enter the EU marketplace and effectively avoid the paperwork and bureaucracy of some other EU member state.


      Citizenship and e-residency

When considering a possible new form of citizenship emerging, it is wise to start from the classics and see whether the traditional models have something in common with the new case, as the baseline elements of new and traditional theories are by rule the same.

Aristotle wrote that a good citizen pursues his telos inside polis — rules and lets others rule over him. According to the Aristotelian system citizens take turns while ruling and participate in decision-making and deliberation; discuss what is bad and what is good, what is needed and what is not, and reach some judicial decisions. And by doing that the citizens are engaged in reason and speech and therefore fulfil their telos. They have some privileges inside the polis but at the same time, citizens are responsible for their ill-decisions. They have their own obligations — to be part of political decision making and military service (Aristotle’s Political Theory 2018).

The first problem here is with the system in which the citizens or e-residents operate. In the case of Aristotle, it is the polis, a Greek city-state, the place where decision making and deliberations take place. Polis is a kind of “organized remembrance” for human activities, speech and action; or as Hannah Arendt put it “a symbolic space of appearance between people” (although the polis of Arendt is different from the Greek one as it didn’t need territory, but just shared or common space). In the case of e-residency, the action takes place in a closed online server which is not a space for debates or  discussion but a programme which gives one access to certain limited tools to start or run a company in Estonia and therefore grants access to the EU Single Market. Prospective e-residents will be given single domain email addresses but the programme doesn’t oblige them to use them or participate in a reasoning to make the “shared space” better. E-residents do not appear to each other via the server, or if they do, it is only their names in the database, where personal information is stored at. Recently there has been no public pressure to change it.

The second problem is connected to the duties of a citizen. According to Aristotle, it is the duty of an excellent citizen to take part in the political decision-making and military service of the polis while it is needed. The duties of e-residents are financial  — some of the financial contributions are paid directly through taxes (when an e-resident registers a company through the programme it automatically becomes a taxpayer of Estonia) and some are not. E-residency does not set any duties or rights to be part of the decision-making process of the programme. E-residents are rather seen as customers who pay Estonia in fame and money and in return, get access to the Single Market. As it is even mentioned on the official site of e-residency, the programme is profitable — e-residents have invested more into the programme than Estonian taxpayers. Clearly, there is no polis-like military of e-residents but the element of defence could be seen in terms of fame. It is a shared responsibility of programme managers and e-residents to keep the “record” of e-residency clean, as it has a reputation for Estonia and an identity, associated with their names, for e-residents. Considering that e-residency is often criticised by public figures, one could argue, it is constantly in war. For example, Aro Velmet has written that the programme is a neoliberal ruin of Estonian dream from the early 2000-s to promote online democracy or foreign banks which accuse e-residency being a possible mechanism for money laundering (Pau 2017; Velmet 2015).

The third problem is connected to the excluding and including factor of e-residency. According to Aristotle, only a rich man could have been a citizen of the polis. In the case of e-residency, it is not that different. An e-resident is an entrepreneur who is willing and able to start or run a company in the EU, pay the 100€ state fee and later for the resident status. Of course, there are female e-residents, but there are no statistics concerning the gender ratio. And as the global economic inequality by gender is an actual problem, it is possible to argue that men have an advantage (Ortiz-Osprina et Roser 2018). No mention of quotas has been present. Secondly, e-residency excludes Estonians and non-citizens. I believe this, in fact, is an example of why e-residency is just a tool to access Estonian tax system and EU Single Market but not a cosmopolitan identity or citizenship which besides everything else provides protection (presumes shared humanity which shapes the way people live together).

That being said, e-residency cannot be characterized as a new citizenship emerging.

In this case study, I explored the emergence of the e-residency programme and answered the question of whether e-residents shall be seen as carriers of some new citizenship. The answer to the question is negative. I deliberately chose to use the theoretical works of Aristotle and not authors who write about global or cosmopolitan citizenship. The reason for that is the action and not the right based definition of both, e-residents and citizens of Aristotle and a clear absence of ethics which is the central aspect in the theories of most important modern authors writing about cosmopolitan citizenship — Derrida, Arendt and Levinas. One who is considering e-residency, in the form of a new citizenship, should keep that in mind: “As citizens, we must prevent wrongdoing since the world we all share, wrongdoers, wrong-suffers, and spectator, is at stake: the City has been wronged” (Arendt: 182).


  •   Arendt, H. Responsibility and Judgement. 2003. New York: Schocken Books. (182)
  •   Arendt, H. Human Condition. 1958. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  •   Aristotle’s Political Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/#PolSci. (30.11.2018)
  •   Friedman, U. The Atlantic. 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/12/the-world-has-its-first-e-resident/383277/. (30.11.2018)
  •   Ortiz-Osprina et Roser. Our World in Data. 2018. https://ourworldindata.org/economic-inequality-by-gender. (1.12.2018)
  •   Pau, A. Postimees. 2017.https://news.postimees.ee/4048337/e-residency-project-stuck-behind-banks. (1.12.2018)
  •   Think Outside the Borders. New York Times. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/paidpost/estonia/how-estonia-is-using-e-residency-to-support-entrepreneurs.html. (30.11.2018)
  •   Velmet, A. E-kodanikud ja e-tarbijad. Vikerkaar. 2015. http://www.vikerkaar.ee/archives/13451. (30.11.2018)
  • Webpage of e-residency: https://e-resident.gov.ee. (1.12.2018)

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