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‘European again’: How changes to citizenship rules will affect Brits in Germany

When the UK completed the final stage of Brexit at the end of 2020, many Brits in Germany were devastated at the loss of their EU rights. But promises made by Germany's new government to allow dual nationality have given them renewed hope.

British and German passport
A British and German passport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

When the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU in 2016, many British people living abroad didn’t get a say in the change. The UK’s laws previously put an arbitrary limit on voting rights for citizens abroad, meaning anyone who had spent more than 15 years in a foreign country was no longer able to vote in elections back home. 

For others who did have a voice, the result of the referendum was equally devastating: many were fearful about their future residence rights in the EU and the ability to continue living the lives they had built. Though the negotiations ended up dragging on, when Brexit finally arrived, the sense of loss was palpable. 

In March 2020, when the first part of the exit from the EU was completed, British nationals were stripped of the right to vote in EU and local elections. They were no longer able to apply for EU-only jobs. Then, the final exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Customs Union on January 1st, 2021 brought with it the end of their freedom of movement within the EU. 

But the German government’s pledge to overhaul nationality laws, including dual citizenship, gives hope to Brits. 

In a survey by The Local on the plans earlier this year, several Brits told us they were thrilled to hear of the rule changes and would “definitely” apply for citizenship in the future. The traffic-light coalitions’ plans to ditch an age-old ban on the holding of multiple nationalities has given Brits hope that they can someday regain these rights by applying to become German, while not relinquishing their British passport or identity. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s new coalition government to allow dual nationality

“This will allow me to regain the security of place and home that I had in Germany as an EU citizen prior to Brexit,” said Jay, 44, who lives in Berlin.

Frankfurt resident Rachel, 49, described the government’s plans to allow dual nationality as “fantastic”.

“The very thought of being able to hold dual nationality already makes me feel more German whilst still holding onto my British nationality,” she said. “It also means that I’ll be able to vote in general elections in the future and can regain my freedom of movement.”

Many of the Brits who gave us their thoughts mentioned the same motivation for becoming German: reclaiming the right to live and work in any country within the EU.

While UK citizens who had lived in Germany before Brexit had their right of residence in the country assured by the Withdrawal Agreement, those without German citizenship are essentially “landlocked”, meaning they no longer have automatic residency rights in any other EU country. 

“I’ll be able to become European again after Brexit,” 42-year-old Mark Smith in Berlin said of the planned changes to citizenship rules. “I get a chance to regain freedom of movement within the EU.”

A two-class system

When Britain left the EEA and Brits lost their freedom of movement rights, another important change took place overnight in Germany.

Brits who hadn’t been able to apply for German citizenship before this date were (under the current rules) no longer entitled to dual nationality. 

Currently, only citizens of EU countries are allowed to keep their previous nationality when becoming a naturalised German. Everyone else, generally, has to choose between their existing passport and a German one, unless they have compelling financial or personal reasons not to. 

The rules have so far created a two-class system of Brits in Germany: the some 40,000 who were able to get dual nationality before the cut-off date, and the some 40,000 who weren’t. 

READ ALSO: Brexit: How thousands of Brits in Germany will be in limbo after doors close on dual nationality

Brexit campaigner

An anti-Brexit campaigner holds a placard saying “Brexit was not worth it” outside the UK parliament in London. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PA Wire | Dominic Lipinksi

For 38-year-old Jack in Berlin, this division runs right through the heart of the family. Jack moved to Germany back in 2017 “hoping Brexit would never happen”. While he had only been in the country for around three years when the UK left the EEA, his husband has lived here for much longer and was able to get citizenship before the cut-off date.

“My husband, who had accumulated enough years in Germany in the past was able to get his German citizenship prior to the Brexit cut-off date, but I was not able to,” he told The Local. “While being technically married to a German citizen, thus rules for becoming a German citizen being easier compared to others, I was still not sure whether I would want to give up my British citizenship.”

Jack says he hopes the changes will come into force quickly so he doesn’t have to live with a passport that doesn’t say European Union on it.

My current British passport still says European Union on it, but it is going to expire in a few years,” he said.

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

‘Solemn decision’

While many people jumped at the chance to get their application for citizenship in ahead of Brexit, others were reluctant to make such a major decision on a tight deadline.

This was the case for Simon, a 51-year-old resident of Cologne. Despite having spent 18 years in Germany – and planning to spend the rest of his life here – he struggled with the idea of taking on a new nationality simply because of political decisions made back in the UK.

“I have tremendous respect for Germany,” he told The Local. “It is a wonderful place to live, sophisticated and stimulating culture, excellent quality of life, lovely people. But to take on German citizenship also means taking on the burden of history as well.”

The German flag hangs in a Frankfurt church during a naturalisation ceremony for new Germans. Photo: picture alliance / Fabian Sommer/dpa | Fabian Sommer

Having decided to simply take permanent residency instead of citizenship, he has since come to the conclusion that that he would be happy to become German – in part because of the work Germany has done over the years in coming to terms with its dark history. 

“Nevertheless, this is a truly solemn decision,” he said. 

For Simon, the planned changes to the dual nationality rules have taken the time pressure off to allow him to mull over the personal and ethical ramifications of becoming German. 

“I will definitely take up German citizenship at some point,” he said. “But I will do it on my own terms and my own timeline, not with a gun to my head and on a schedule dictated for by by far the worst, shambolic, low-grade, nasty and insular British regime of modern history.”

‘Committed to Germany’

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, citizens’ rights group British in Europe and its Germany-based wing British in Germany were established to give Brits in the EU a voice. 

Though its primary work was trying to ensure that key rights for citizens were set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, the group also took a strong stance on Germany’s previously strict rules against dual nationality, campaigning for the ban to be lifted ahead of federal elections last September.

“British in Germany wrote to most of the key political parties in Germany before the autumn election and were very encouraged by some of the responses, including from the coalition partners,” British in Germany chair Jane Golding told The Local. “We very much welcome the plans on dual nationality.”

Brexit has always been a highly emotive issue on both sides of the debate, partly because it speaks to people’s sense of identity.

Several respondents to our survey told us how much they had valued the European citizenship they had before, and how desperate they were to regain it.

“I’m so relieved that they are changing the rules,” said 42-year-old Hannover resident Larisa Sharifi. “I hated feeling like my EU citizenship was lost.”

New naturalised citizen in Germany

A newly naturalised German citizen holds up her new passport. Photo: picture alliance / Fabian Sommer/dpa | Fabian Sommer

According to British in Germany, the appetite for becoming German is huge among many of the Brits who didn’t make the original cut-off at the end of 2020.

When the new law permitting multiple nationalities comes into force – which could be as early as this year – thousands of Brits will be clamouring to become a citizen of the EU once again. 

READ ALSO: ‘I can’t give up my passport’: Foreigners wait for Germany to change citizenship laws

“We know that many more UK citizens who have residency rights under the Withdrawal Agreement provisions would like to take dual nationality once the laws change,” said Golding.

“Like other third country nationals who have been in Germany for a long time, most feel very integrated, and committed to Germany, and becoming German would allow them to participate even more fully in German society, including voting and standing for election.  

“At the same time. keeping their original citizenship is an insurance policy in case, for example, they have to go back to their country of origin to look after elderly relatives in future.”

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For members


Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”