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Could Germany change its dual citizenship laws?

Caitlin Hardee examines how likely it is that the future government will reform its laws on holding more than one nationality - a topic that affects many foreigners in Germany.

Could Germany change its dual citizenship laws?
An example of a German citizenship test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

To put it bluntly: German dual citizenship laws are a mess. Officially, the country has always discouraged double citizenship especially for non-EU nationals, with exceptions for those who can find their way through a characteristically Kafkaesque maze of bureaucratic loopholes. This means that many people face renouncing their previous citizenship to get a German passport.

But holding German citizenship – along with your origin country – has major perks. For example, you’d then have full voting rights, including for the federal vote like the one held on September 26th, along with free movement around Europe like other citizens of EU member states. 

However, in the run-up to polling day, it seemed that many German political parties said they were willing to liberalise the law. Willing – but how determined? What would it take for a more permissive policy to make it from the depths of a campaign platform paper, through the election cycle and the minefield of coalition negotiations, onto a to-do list of a signed Koalitionsvertrag (contract) into a bill of a governing party in the Bundestag, and finally emerge as the new law of the land? And why is this niche issue worth the hassle?

For a start, a majority of the main German political parties do support some form of expanding access to dual citizenship. Their visions differ widely in the details – for an overview, check out our explainer:

READ ALSO: Where do Germany’s political parties stand on dual citizenship and nationalities? 

Those varying visions get even more complicated when considered in combination, inevitably facing some sort of compromise and horse-trading during coalition negotiations, which in 2021 will likely include three ruling parties. After the election, it’s still anything but certain which party will secure the chancellorship, much less which coalition will ultimately manage Germany’s affairs and set the legislative agenda for the next four years.

“Momentum lies with Scholz and the Social Democrats but the polls have been changing so quickly that it’s impossible to tell which party will get most seats,” Marcel Dirsus, a German policy expert at Kiel University, told The Local before the vote. 

“And because of the way the German political system works, the candidate of the biggest party might not actually end up being Chancellor if they fail to build a coalition. Who wins this election is anyone’s guess.”

ANALYSIS: Who could be in Germany’s next coalition government?

Isabelle Borucki, political scientist at the University of Siegen and the University of Duisburg-Essen, also emphasised the complexity of the current dual citizenship law and the uncertainty of its political prospects.

“From the German perspective, dual nationality for citizens of the European Union and Switzerland is no problem at all, and is permitted,” Borucki pointed out.

Archive photo shows a group of people who took the German citizenship test celebrating at a naturalisation party in the Saxon state parliament. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Hiekel

But for countries outside of the EU without special loopholes, multinationality remains a problem. Is there hope? “Yes, I think a liberalisation of these rules could come to pass, but that will essentially depend upon which parties end up forming the new government,” she said.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about dual citizenship in Germany

Political paint swatches: so what happens when the new government forms?

In lieu of an obvious winner, let’s break down the main possibilities for the next ruling coalition, and the likely fate of dual citizenship under each.

Jamaika (black-yellow-green like the Jamaican flag, CDU/CSU-FDP-Grüne)

It seems unlikely that the nationality law would see a liberalisation under Jamaika. How unlikely depends on how the voting percentages play out: in any constellation where the Union retained the relative majority, the Greens and Liberals would probably not manage to push this item through.

If the Greens had the relative majority, maybe things would look different – or maybe not. Any coalition contract involves compromise, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the Greens forgot about a few side goals, especially those that only really matter to non-voting immigrants, in order to rescue their climate agenda and other central issues. As for the FDP, the Liberals won’t capture the biggest chunk of the vote in a Jamaika scenario, but their presence could at least weight the scales in favor of a more permissive policy.

The Greens’ chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

Schwarz-Grün (black-green, CDU/CSU-Grüne)

Same deal as Jamaika, just without the FDP – and if the Union has the better bargaining position, forget it. In places where Black-Green rules at the state level, the legislative agenda proves rather conservative. The Greens would use their negotiating power for their top issue, which is the climate, and look for compromise on other hot-button issues like affordable living space. Double citizenship, in this constellation, would probably not survive the coalition talks.

Grün-Schwarz (green-black, Grüne-CDU/CSU)

Again, with the Greens capturing a greater percentage of the vote and therefore having more power at the negotiating table, you’d want to be optimistic. However, the Greens would probably run into fierce resistance from the Union on this issue, and would have to pick their battles. Climate and various social agenda items are going to have a higher priority.

Ampel (red-yellow-green, SPD-FDP-Grüne)

The so-called traffic light coalition is one of two plausible scenarios in which the chances for a more open citizenship law look quite rosy. All three parties support it in one way or another. The devil is in the details, but with the Union blockade out of the way, there’d be no reason for them to fail to pass it, other than sheer forgetfulness.

Schwarz-Rot-Grün / Kenia (black-red-green like the Kenyan flag, CDU/CSU-SPD-Grüne)

The rare “Kenia” coalition presents a similar set of questions as Jamaika. Can any parties get this issue past Union resistance? Do any parties care enough, potentially leaving some other goal on the table to do so? If SPD and Greens both turned in strong percentages and the Union did abysmally, perhaps this issue could squeak through the talks. Otherwise it seems unlikely.

Schwarz-Rot-Gelb / Deutschland (black-red-yellow like the German flag, CDU/CSU-SPD-FDP)

Same deal as the other “flag” coalitions. It’s all about relative bargaining power. SPD and FDP both want to liberalise the policy, but when the grueling negotiations enter their third month and everyone’s still busy fighting over taxes and housing, will they remember that they want it? Doubtful.

Rot-Rot-Grün (red-red-green, SPD-Linke-Grüne)

This is the second coalition under which the chances of a new dawn for multiple citizenships seem decent. As long as they didn’t spend all their time mired down in various boondoggles like the red-red-green Berlin state government, there’s no reason these three parties couldn’t pass a more progressive immigration law, including the issue of dual nationality.

A British and German passport. British people in Germany can’t easily get dual citizenship now because the UK left the EU. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Holger Hollemann

Große Koalition or GroKo (black-red, CDU/CSU-SPD)

Probably not. We’ve seen this constellation before, many times (this is the current set-up with Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CCU as Chancellor), and the SPD have never decided to take a stance and die on the hill of double citizenship.

What can we gather from this?

Experts say even if a dual-citizenship-friendly coalition enters the Bundestag, the issue still won’t be at the front of the queue as it tends not to affect the majority. 

Yet with an estimated roughly 10 million people living in the country without German citizenship – and with calls to allow more skilled migrants into the workforce to fill jobs – relaxing laws would affect many people – and possible future voters. 

Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, summed up the political inertia on multinationality. “By my assessment, citizenship law remains a topic in Germany that is still regarded with a certain scepticism,” Münch said.

“As far as I can see, the parties which are in favour of a liberalisation, on principle, do harbour worries that the associated political fight would be exploited by the AfD for their own ends.”

Eyeing the ascendance of the Social Democrats in recent polls, she issued a nuanced prediction: “I would expect that an SPD-led federal government would aspire to a liberalisation, but that the issue would not have top priority, and – I assume – the approval of multinationality would be tied to prerequisites.”

Member comments

  1. Great article! More of this, please.

    One thing I’ve never understood: why does Germany permit dual nationality with Switzerland? How can Germany lawfully discriminate in favor of Swiss citizens and against other non-EU citizens?

    1. I suspect it has to do with access to the EFTA, which Switzerland does have. Not to mention the relatively large German speaking population there.

      1. That doesn’t add up, though, for at least four reasons:

        1. There are four countries in EFTA. Switzerland is only one of them. The other three are not privileged in Germany’s nationality laws.

        2. German is also an official language in Liechtenstein. But Liechtenstein is not privileged.

        3. The fact that German is widely spoken in Switzerland is not a lawful basis for discrimination.

        4. Speaking German is anyway a pre-requisite for an individual to acquire German nationality.

  2. An interesting article but as pointed out, it ain’t gonna be number one priority. My personal view is that Germany will have to offer a much simpler and easy route to dual citizenship if it wants to attract highly educated and skilled workers

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IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

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

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

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