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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.

British and German dual nationality
A newly naturalised British/German dual national holds up both of their passports. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Holger Hollemann

For several years – if not decades – citizenship has been an area in German 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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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent question-and-answer session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) appear and take questions from MPs on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Faeser is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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