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‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

As Germany stands poised to permit multiple nationalities, The Local readers have aired their views about how the change will affect them. The verdict? Many feel more comfortable settling in the country and building a life here.

German citizenship
A newly naturalised German shows her citizenship documents at Rathaus Neukölln in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

Ahead of the September 2021 elections, it was no secret that Germany was on the brink of a huge political shift.

Angela Merkel, who had occupied the country’s top job through 16 years of crises and coalitions, had announced her retirement from politics; both sides of the so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ of the SPD and CDU/CSU had signalled that they were done with the partnership, and the country was faced with major upheaval from the pandemic and disastrous effects of climate change. 

What many people failed to predict, however, was just how significant the election would be for foreigners in Germany, those with migrant backgrounds and Germans abroad. 

In the coalition pact unveiled in November, the SPD, Greens and FDP announced plans to slash barriers to naturalisation one by one, from lowering the residency requirement from eight years to five (or even three with “exceptional integration”) to permitting the holding of multiple citizenships.

It’s still unclear when the changes to citizenship law will come into force – though politicians have told us it’s a “priority” for this year – but what is clear is that it will make a significant difference to lives of millions of foreigners who have decided to make Germany their home. 

Speaking to The Local after the changes were announced, several readers told us they welcomed the change – but thought that it was “long overdue”. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” said 47-year-old Greg from Karlsruhe. “It was very backward to only allow single citizenship.”

READ ALSO: When will Germany relax its dual citizenship laws?

Like many other respondents, Greg said he had hired a lawyer in the hope of getting an exception to the dual nationality rules – but ultimately it would have cost too much to pursue the case in court.

“Now I can finally get German citizenship after 15 years and I’m very happy about that,” he told us.

Of the more than 300 people who responded to our survey, around 72 percent said the change would make a huge difference to their lives, while a further 25 percent said it would affect them “a little”. 

Graph showing impact of change in German citizenship rules

Source: The Local

Others pointed out that, though they were personally happy about the change, the impact went well beyond first-generation migrants alone. 

We live in a world that is more global than ever, and this decision is going to open many doors – not just for the people who want to live in Germany, but for Germany itself.” said Brendan Lies, 31, who lives in Munich.

“But the ones I’m the most happy for are the many Turkish families who, until now, have had to struggle with completely unnecessary bureaucracy even generations later. This change is convenient for me, but for them, I think it’s more a matter of justice and equality.”

‘No longer a second-class citizen’

An overwhelming proportion of respondents to our survey – 88 percent – said they didn’t yet have German citizenship.

German citizenship graph

Source: The Local
 
Many said they had been put off from applying by the fact that they would have had to renounce their old passport. A significant number said they feared losing the right to visit their family and care for their ageing parents back home.

Of the 37 people who said they did have a German passport, 66 percent had renounced their previous nationality already, while a lucky 34 percent had been able to get dual nationality, either through an exception or because their original nationality was an EU one.

Of the people who weren’t yet ‘German’, 78 percent said they would “definitely” apply for citizenship once the rules had changed, while 11.5 percent had been already been planning to apply – even if they had to give up their previous nationality. 

Graph showing impact of dual nationality rule change

Source: The Local

The reasons for wanting to do so were varied, though many people brought up benefits such as voting rights and freedom of movement through the EU. 

I could finally vote after living in Germany for 30 years and having no say in what is going on,” said 48-year-old Laurie Schideman who lives in Frankfurt.

David Oswald, 49, who lives in Berlin, said the right to participate in elections was important to him as well.

“As a British person I’ve felt disenfranchised as I can’t vote here in Germany,” he explained. 

“It’s amazing,” said John Hignite, 31, who lives in Rodgau in Hesse. “I’ve lived in Germany for 10 years (all of my adult life), but haven’t been able to participate in elections.”

Another respondent who gave up their previous citizenship said they were excited at the prospect of regaining the right to have a say in the place they grew up.

I shall definitely re-acquire my old citizenship back and avail myself of my rights to stay longer, to own property and also vote and be politically active in my homeland,” they said. 

Beyond the explicit benefits that come with German citizenship, however, many people pointed to the less tangible – but no less important – sense that their complex loyalties and identities would finally be recognised. 

“I can officially show that I have loyalties to both Germany and the UK and should not be treated as a third rate citizen by authorities,” said 61-year old Kim Dallas, who lives in Saxony-Anhalt. 

Alex, 65, who lives in Hamburg, was also looking forward to having a greater sense of belonging. 

“I will no longer have to feel second class by falling on the wrong side of the EU/Non-EU divide, which crops up everywhere,” he said. 

READ ALSO: In limbo: Why Germany’s reform of dual citizenship laws can’t come soon enough

‘This changes everything’

In a powerful counterpoint to the argument that dual nationality creates split allegiances, many of our readers said that gaining German citizenship would help them feel much more integrated once they gained the passport.  

Some people told us they’d found new motivation to improve their German language skills, while others said it would inspire them to commit to the country on a long-term basis.

“This really changes everything for me and my family,” said 34-year-old Berliner Mamadou. “I now really want to stay in Germany and fully integrate knowing that I will have the right to vote and live like a proper German.”

It is definitely the best way forward,” said Elini, 33, who lives in Berlin. “Becoming a national of the country you live in is absolutely something that can change how you view that country, and how accepted you feel in that society.”

Others agreed that dual nationality would help people forge stronger emotional ties to Germany. 

A migrant with citizenship documents

A newly naturalised German smiles at his citizenship ceremony in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

“As a matter of principle, I don’t believe that there is a real argument for forcing people to only have one citizenship,” one anonymous respondent told us.

“Doing that implies forcing some sort of weird ‘loyalty’ to only one place, while it is human to feel connected to more than one place and to want to be part of both – while totally understanding that when you’re in Germany of course the German rules and law should and will apply to you.”

“I can keep my identity, and yet fully commit and exist in the country I chose to live, pay taxes, work,” said 26-year-old Daniel C. who lives in Berlin. “I can belong to my new home while not abandoning my old one.”

Dmitry, 44, who lives in Munich, echoed this view. 

“After gaining German citizenship, I would finally feel at home in Germany, knowing that I and my children would have all rights and all protections connected with it,” he said. 

Though not everyone we surveyed was happy about the change, a large number expressed feelings of relief that their voices had finally been heard and excitement about starting a new chapter of German life. 

This feeling of finally belonging was summarised by David Oswald in Berlin.

“Dual nationality doesn’t prevent integration,” he said. “It merely strengthens the bond between citizens.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How I got German citizenship – and how you can too

*******

Thanks to everyone who shared their comments with us. Keep an eye on the Local Germany for more stories on what the planned changes mean for readers.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please feel free to get in touch.

Member comments

  1. I got German nationality in November 2015, as it became clear what David Cameron was up to with his referendum on Brexit (I already believed in 2015 that he was playing with fire – how true that was!). I kept my British citizenship and am now a dual citizen. I have never regretted it and have been living happily in Germany since 1996. I have no plans to go back to Britain except on holiday.

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IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

Germany's new coalition government is planning major reforms of the country's citizenship policies. The Local spoke to the FDP's immigration policy expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch about when - and how - people can expect the rules to change.

INTERVIEW: 'Changing German citizenship laws is a priority'

For several years – if not decades – citizenship has been an area in Germany politics where very little has been allowed to change.

Though the Social Democrats (SPD) governed for years as the junior coalition partner of the conservative CDU and CSU parties, they were generally blocked at every turn when trying to offer more routes to citizenship. 

Instead, the country kept strict rules banning dual nationality in place, and has continued to have long residency and strict language requirements in place. As a result, Germany has had some of the lowest levels of naturalisation in the EU, with people waiting an average of 17 years before they apply for citizenship.  

This all changed when the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) formed their ‘traffic light’ coalition.   

“Even before the elections took place, we all thought citizenship should be reformed, so there was no major discord between the coalition partners on this issue,” FDP migration policy expert Dr. Ann-Verushka Jurisch told The Local.

“Migration in general was an easy topic because we all think we are an immigration society.”

This, as Jurisch points out, is in stark contrast to the CDU/CSU parties, who have for a long time been reluctant to give immigrations an easier path to becoming German. 

“They think we have a more mainstream German culture,” she said. “Whereas we think we are an open society who should be open to everybody who wants to be part of the project we call Germany.”

That’s why, when the 144-page coalition agreement was released in November, it revealed that a major overhaul of the status quo was coming.

READ ALSO: In limbo: Why Germany’s reform of dual citizenship laws can’t come soon enough

FDP MP and migration expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch

FDP MP and migration expert Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch. Photo: Laurence Chaperon

In a key passage that caught the attention of internationals in Germany, the new coalition pledged to create a “modern citizenship law” that would permit allowing the holding of multiple citizenships and “simplify the route to obtaining German citizenship”.

It also pledged to reduce the years of residence needed for citizenship from eight years to five – or three for people who are “exceptionally integrated”. 

Another, slightly more cryptic passage, declared that the current requirement of proving “integration into German living conditions” would be replaced with “clearer criteria” – though Jurisch was unclear about whether this would amount to a major change in the documentation migrants require to naturalise in Germany. 

“I must be quite honest, I do not know if there are really big shifts or changes planned,” she said. “I think, of course, citizenship must be bound to some criteria – but there is a general sense between the coalition partners that we shouldn’t give immigrants too much of a tough time.” 

One thing is clear: the current integration courses and language requirements will remain in place for most people. 

“Language and integration courses will certainly still be part of the game because I think it’s important to communicate certain things about Germany and to me, it makes sense,” Jurisch explained.

But the question is whether the integration courses and the language requirements are there as an obstacle or there as a door that people want to go through? For the coalition it’s more about creating a door rather than an obstacle, and I think that’s one of the major policy shifts that is going to take place.”

Law to change ‘by 2023’ 

Around 14 percent of the population – 11.8 million people – currently live in Germany on a foreign passport.

A proportion of these are EU citizens, who are able to keep their existing passport when they become German, but a large number are from non-EU countries and face the prospect of renouncing their existing citizenship if they want to naturalise.

When The Local conducted a survey on the changing rules back in January, 90 percent of respondents said they wanted to apply for German citizenship – with 78 percent saying they were holding off until the rules were changed.

New Germans sit holding their declaration of allegiance to Germany

New Germans sit holding their declaration of allegiance to Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

So, when exactly will all these modernisations of Germany’s nationality law take place? 

“At the moment, negotiations are taking place between the coalition partners because every coalition partner has their own prioritised projects,” Jurish revealed.

Changing the citizenship law is a prioritised project of the Social Democrats (SPD) and as it happens, the Interior Minister is also from this party. So it’s very likely that the timeline that the minister has suggested – which indicates that it’ll be done at the end of this year – will actually happen.”

When The Local spoke to the Interior Ministry back in April, they were less optimistic about the deadline, with a spokesperson playing down expectations that the new laws would come into force in 2022.

But it appears that the ball is already rolling and that the beginning of 2023 could be a realistic timeframe.

“This is one of the very prioritised projects of the SPD,” Jurisch reiterated. “I think it’s a very valid, important issue, and one that matters to all three partners.”

Lowering the threshold

Despite the urgent appetite for reform within the coalition, there are a number of smaller details that need to be worked out before a new law can be drafted.

In particular, the FDP is keen to ensure that people don’t end up accruing multiple passports over multiple generations.

That means, for example, that first-generation migrants and their children would have a claim to dual nationality, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely still be asked to choose between German nationality and that of their grandparents.

Another task facing the Interior Ministry is to introduce a “hardship clause” that would exempt certain people from the current B1 language requirement in the citizenship application. 

“The starting point is our commitment to the very fact that we are an immigrant society with all its positive implications,” said Jurisch. “And this also means embracing the guest worker community, some of whom maybe came to our country decades ago and still have problems, for example, with the language. And this is an obstacle to becoming a German citizen.

Citizenship test Germany

An applicant for German citizenship takes the citizenship test in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

READ ALSO: Reader question: When will Germany change its citizenship laws?

“We would like to lower the threshold for those people because I think it’s kind of unjust to say, you’ve been here for 30 years but don’t speak the language, so sorry, we don’t want you.”

A run on passports

Another key issue is that, even at current levels of demand, it can take months or even years for Citizenship Offices to process applications.

This is in part due to the size of the respective migrant communities in different areas, and in part due to the fact that Germany is – in Jurisch’s words – “lagging behind” on digitalisation. 

When the doors finally open up to millions more people at the end of the year or start of next, there could be some very long queues. 

“I’m very sorry to say that a lot of things have been left undone over the past 16 years, especially within the field of digitalisation and in terms of accelerating administrative processes,” Jurisch said. “I think it’s a really bad thing because there will be a run (on citizenship), and processes will be slow.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How I got German citizenship – and how you can too

Since digitalisation projects tend to take several months or even years, Jurisch believes it’s unlikely that much progress will have been made on modernising the citizenship application process by the time the laws are changed. 

“So I think it will be a little bit messy,” she added. 

A newly naturalised German citizen holds his certificate of naturalisation

A newly naturalised German citizen holds his certificate of naturalisation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

When it comes to the day-to-day issues like the staffing and management of the Citizenship Offices (Einbürgerungsbehörden), these are further out of the federal government’s control, as they tend to be run by the municipalities. 

“But this is something we’ll have to take into account when changing the law,” Jurisch said. 

Despite the potential waiting times, many migrants are simply happy to see a shift under the traffic-coalition from policies that have made many feel shut-out of German society to policies that have made them feel more welcome – and more seen.

“It’s a major shift in policy, to try to say we are an immigrant society,” Jurisch said. “And to say that we must make sure that people can become German citizens more easily if they want to.” 

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