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GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

German citizenship: Can people who apply before the law changes get dual nationality?

Germany is set to permit the holding of multiple nationalities in the near future - but what happens to people who are applying now, or who have already given up their old citizenship?

A German passport on a desk
A German passport on a desk. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Foreigners in Germany are eagerly awaiting a key change in citizenship law that will finally allow non-EU citizens to apply for a German passport and also keep their existing one. 

This week, The Local revealed that a debate on the new Citizens’ Act is scheduled in the Bundestag for December, with the changes likely to come into force next year. 

With a whole new set of rules set to come into force within months, there’s some confusion over what rules will apply to people who have already submitted their applications – or who plan to in the near future. 

With they be eligible for dual nationality if the rules change while they’re waiting for their application to be processed? And will people who give up their existing nationality be able to regain it after the new Nationality Act comes into force?

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According to the Interior Ministry, the rules that will apply to your citizenship application will always be based on the current law at the time.  

“The naturalisation authorities have to decide on ongoing procedures on the basis of the current law until the new Nationality Act comes into force,” a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry told The Local. “That means applicants still have to give up their previous nationality if none of the existing legal exceptions applies to them.”

This point was reiterated by Berlin Mitte’s Citizenship Office, who emphasised that implementing the changes “could take several years”.

“The most current Nationality Act will always apply,” they said.  

British and German dual nationality

Someone holds a British and German passport together. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

However, when pushed for more details, they revealed that a change in the law while your application is being processed would mean that your right to dual nationality would also change. 

“The law that is applicable at the time when German citizenship is granted is the law that is applied,” they explained. 

To clarify this a bit, let’s sum up a few different scenarios in turn.

If the law changes while you’re waiting for your German passport:

In this scenario, you should be granted dual nationality. As the Citizenship Office in central Berlin explained, whoever processes your application should apply the law that is in force at the time when citizenship is actually granted

In other words, it doesn’t matter what the law is when you submit your application. The only thing that matters is which set of rules is in force when you finally come to pick up your German citizenship certificates.

READ ALSO: What’s the latest on Germany’s plan to change dual citizenship laws?

If you get your German nationality before the law changes:

In this scenario, you will have to give up your existing nationality – unless you fall under one of Germany’s exceptions to the dual nationality rule. This can include being an EU citizen, being unable to give up your citizenship in your country of origin, being a refugee, or being unable to afford the cost of giving up your existing nationality.

However, if this is your situation, you may not have to give up your citizenship forever. Which brings us to our next point…

If you’ve already given up your citizenship: 

If you have to give up your existing citizenship to become German (or have already done so), there’s some good news: when the law changes, you’ll be entitled to reapply for your original nationality and become a dual national. 

“German law would not be opposed to people reacquiring their previously renounced nationality after the intended change in the law, since due to the intended general allowance of multiple nationality, the acquisition of a foreign nationality would then no longer lead to the loss of German nationality,” a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told The Local. 

In other words, you’d basically be treated like any other German national applying for another nationality once the law has changed. 

However, you should note that your ability to reapply for your previous citizenship will also depend on the rules in your home country.

In the UK, for example, it’s relatively easy to get your passport back. You’ll just have to prove that you had to give it up as part of the German naturalisation process.

In the United States, the opposite is true: giving up your American citizenship is an irrevocable act, meaning it can only be undone in highly exceptional circumstances.  

READ ALSO: Giving up being British: What you should know about becoming German after December 31st

When is the right time to apply for citizenship? 

As we always say, this is a personal decision. Only you know whether getting German citizenship as fast as possible or becoming a dual national is more important to you.

If you do apply now and want to keep your old passport, you’ll essentially be gambling on the law changing faster than it takes the Citizenship Office to process your application. And though laws can be slow-moving in Germany, this may not be a bad bet to make. 

In some parts of Berlin, for example, it can take months to get an appointment at a Citizenship Office and at least a couple of years to be granted citizenship, so in those cases, if you’re eligible to apply, you may want to consider getting the ball rolling as early as you can.

German citizenship test

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

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry is attempting to draft the relevant changes to the Citizenship Act and present them to parliament by the end of the year – though of course there could be delays. 

Before applying, you may want to find out the average time it takes to process an application at your local Citizenship Office and think about how long you’re willing to wait for your German passport. If it takes around a year in your area and you think the law will have changed by next summer (according to the Interior Ministry’s plans), it may make sense to start the application soon if you meet the criteria.

READ ALSO: ‘Two years is normal’: How Germany’s citizenship process leaves foreigners hanging

However, it’s also important to weigh up the risks of giving up your citizenship in the event that your application is processed faster than expected, or the law changes more slowly than expected. If you’re from a country where it’s easy to regain it, this may not be a big deal, but in countries like the United States, renouncing the passport is an irreversible decision.

Get in touch with an immigration lawyer if you want to talk through the specifics of your application and get some insights on when might be a good time to apply.  

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GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

The opposition CDU has accused the federal government of wanting to “sell off” German passports with its planned reform of German citizenship law – designed to make naturalising as German easier and allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals. One expert says the CDU could water down reforms.

EXPLAINED: Could Germany's conservatives block dual citizenship?

As The Local Germany first reported last month, Germany’s federal Interior Ministry plans to present its draft law liberalising German citizenship rules in December.

Besides allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals, the federal traffic light government plans to shorten the amount of time someone needs to have been in Germany to naturalise as German from eight years to five. If someone has integrated well, for example by passing a B2 German exam, they would then be eligible for a fast-track of three years instead of the current six.

Under the plans, becoming German would also be simplified for both children and some seniors.

READ ALSO:

All three governing parties – the Social Democrats, Greens, and liberal Free Democrats – support the reform, as does the Left Party. Yet the CDU opposes the reforms, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei saying on Friday that “the German passport must not become junk.”

The CDU has a long history of opposing dual citizenship or citizenship reform in general, and blocked a 1999 proposal from the SPD-Green government at the time to allow dual citizenship.

In a nutshell, it did this by collecting millions of signatures on a petition against allowing dual citizenship and winning the Hesse state election, before blocking the proposal in the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper chamber representing federal states.

So could history repeat itself? Could a citizenship reform law pass a Bundestag where the government has a majority only to be derailed yet again in the Bundesrat?

Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, says the short answer is yes – it’s possible. But even in that event, she would still expect to see a compromise that would see a watered down law pass.

What is the Bundesrat and how could the CDU block citizenship reform in it?

Laws that pass the Bundestag then go to the Bundesrat, which has 69 seats representing Germany’s 16 states. Thirty-five votes are needed to reach a majority in that chamber.

The Bundesrat only has an advisory role on many laws. On these laws, the Bundestag can simply override the Bundesrat if it doesn’t agree. Other laws, however, particularly those that have large effects on how federal states manage their services, and thus finances – require the Bundesrat’s consent.

Hakan Demir, an SPD MdB for Berlin-Neukölln, answering a constituent’s question on Abgeornetenwatch.de, a watchdog website for German parliamentarians, argues the law is not expected to require the Bundesrat’s agreement. He says that’s because it will not have an impact on federal state financing. 

Green MdB Filiz Polat also says the plan is that the law wouldn’t need the Bundesrat’s consent, suggesting the traffic light parties may try to write the law such that they can argue that it doesn’t have to go to the upper chamber.

But Münch says there’s a legal case to be made for why citizenship reform would need to go through the Bundesrat – giving the CDU the opportunity to block it – just as it did in 1999 when a previous dual citizenship proposal had a Bundestag majority but failed in the Bundesrat.

“If we look at a theme like the right to German nationality, naturally that’s something that strongly affects how the states run their own Interior ministries and their immigration offices – which actually implement the laws,” says Münch. “For this reason, laws affecting that would require the Bundesrat’s consent.”

Münch explains that each state has a certain number of seats that only roughly correspond to its population. Coalition governments within those states typically vote as a bloc though, rather than along party lines.

That means that Baden-Württemberg, for example, which has six seats under a Green-CDU coalition, doesn’t simply split 3-3 in the Bundesrat like their parties in the Bundestag might. The coalition government in that state has to decide together how all six of their votes will go.

The current party composition of Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents state governments. A citizenship reform bill must pass both the Bundestag and Bundesrat, which doesn’t typically vote on party lines. It has 69 seats, with 35 votes needed for a majority. Image: Bundesrat

“The CDU and CSU don’t have actually have a majority in the Bundesrat, but they can, at the state level, push for their federal state to abstain from a vote,” Münch tells The Local. “And they’re in a lot of state governments.”

This means that the CDU in our example of Baden-Württemberg, a state where it shares power with the Greens, can prevent all six state votes from being cast in the Bundesrat – meaning that a citizenship law that’s passed the Bundestag can fall short of the 35 votes needed to pass in the Bundesrat – even when parties supporting the reform hold most of the seats.

“That’s why, when we’re discussing something like citizenship law, which would require the Bundesrat’s consent, an abstention is as good as a ‘no’ vote,” says Münch. “So the traffic light parties have to work with the Union here.”

Münch says it would be easier for the CDU to force their state to abstain on citizenship reform if they’re one of two parties – as in Baden-Württemberg – than if they’re outnumbered in their state government by two other pro-reform parties, as in Saxony. However, how a state votes also depends on which party leads the coalition or has the state’s Interior Ministry.

READ ALSO: HISTORY: What’s behind the push to reform dual citizenship laws in Germany?

Compromise still likely even if the CDU blocks citizenship reform

Münch says the traffic light parties will probably find it harder than normal to work with the CDU on a subject like citizenship law – an emotional topic that gets right at the question of who gets to be German. But she still expects a compromise.

“I don’t see a situation happening where the Union can block this proposal completely,” says Münch. “They’re simply not strong enough politically right now to do that.”

Where Münch does see the potential for pushback from the CDU is not on whether dual citizenship should be allowed or not, but on the question of how long someone must be resident in Germany in order to naturalise.

This means that although the right to dual citizenship may still end up being passed, the time requirements may not end up being shortened as much as the current government might wish.

“We’re not in the 1990s anymore,” adds Münch. “German society is much different now than it was then. Germany is much more an immigration country now than we were even then. That’s why I don’t think this is an ‘all or nothing’ question of whether this passes or not.”

Vocabulary

Majority – (die) Mehrheit

Vote – (die) Stimme

Immigration country (a country that attracts immigrants) – (das) Einwanderungsland

Dual nationality or citizenship – (die) Doppelstaatsbürgerschaft

Composition of seats (in a political chamber) – (die) Sitzverteilung

Governing coalition – (die) Regierungskoalition

The Federal Council – (der) Bundesrat

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