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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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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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