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TIMELINE: Germany's decades-long debate to allow dual citizenship

Aaron Burnett
Aaron Burnett - [email protected]
TIMELINE: Germany's decades-long debate to allow dual citizenship
A draft law to allow dual citizenship in Germany is now at its final constitutional hurdle - after decades of controversy. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Arne_Dedert

Germany is finally set to allow dual nationality for everyone this year, with citizenship reform having passed both its legislative chambers - the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The path here has been long, and often fraught with controversy.

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Germany has long had fairly strict limits to holding dual or multiple citizenship when compared to other countries, which the current governing coalition just threw out in both of the country's legislative chambers - the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.

A mostly ceremonial constitutional reform process by the Federal President and a three-month waiting period to allow the civil service to implement the new law is all that now stands in the way of all applicants for naturalisation in Germany to be able to keep their previous passport.

READ ALSO: Germany's landmark dual citizenship law passes final vote

At the moment, a German citizen is only allowed to hold another citizenship if they were born to a German parent while possessing the other nationality at the time they were born, if the other nationality is from another EU country, or if they receive special permission from the German government to keep both at the time they apply.

If these conditions aren’t met, a naturalising German generally has to renounce their other citizenship. If naturalising abroad, a German citizen currently has to give up their German passport.

German citizenship is based largely on jus sanguinis, or ‘right of blood,’ which sees citizenship passed down from parent to child. That’s different to most of North and South America, which use jus soli, giving citizenship to anyone born in the country.

READ ALSO: What are the next steps for Germany's new dual citizenship law?

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When my own mother was born in Canada, she obtained Canadian citizenship, despite the fact that her parents were both Germans that hadn’t yet naturalised as Canadians. The same does not automatically happen with children born in Germany to non-German parents.

In a rather cruel historical turn, Germany’s citizenship law saw my German-born grandparents give up their German passports when they became Canadian. My mother and I, both born in Canada to a German parent, continue to hold both – something long denied to many others.

EXPLAINED: Who can currently get dual citizenship in Germany?

The author's grandparents, Elsie and Erich Gasch, dressed for the 1969 Calgary Stampede. That same year, they relinquished German nationality to naturalise as Canadians. Photo: Gasch and Burnett family

Germany’s so-called Gastarbeiter, or “guest worker,” generation has been particularly affected. Following the country’s Wirtschaftswunder – or “economic miracle” that saw robust growth in Germany’s immediate post-war years, foreign workers were brought in to address labour shortages.

Hailing largely from Turkey, politicians thought guest workers would eventually leave Germany again after a few years. When they stayed, German society kicked off a debate on dual nationality its 1914 citizenship law was ill-equipped to handle.

The Ford plant in Cologne was one of the first places to employ Turkish 'guest workers' in the early 1960s. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Ford-Werke GmbH | Ford-Werke GmbH

The debate would last for decades.

INTERVIEW: Germany's new citizenship law is 'historic moment' for foreign residents

1990-2000: Reforms give Gastarbeiter children right to dual citizenship – with a big catch

By the 1990s, many children of the guest worker generation had been born and educated in Germany, and worked in Germany while still holding foreign – often Turkish citizenship – and not German citizenship. A 1993 legislation finally allowed people resident in Germany for at least 15 years to naturalise as German. The catch though, is that becoming a German by choice then required the naturalising person to give up any other nationalities they might have. Many opted not to.

In 1999, the centre-left Red-Green coalition first introduced a measure of jus soli citizenship for children born in Germany to non-German parents – and crucially, a proposal to allow dual citizenship. It met with fierce opposition from German conservatives.

The opposition Christian Democrats, later headed up by future Chancellor Angela Merkel, collected five million signatures on a petition to quash the dual citizenship proposal. Posters for the petition read ‘Yes to integration, no to dual citizenship!’

A CDU poster in 1999's Hesse state vote reads: 'Yes to integration, no to dual citizenship' Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Arne_Dedert

KEY POINTS: What you need to know about Germany's citizenship law reform

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In addition to millions of signatures, the petition proved to be a polarising issue in the 1999 state election in Hesse, which saw the state CDU topple the Social Democrats and the SPD lose is majority in the Bundesrat.

The federal coalition was then forced to agree to a watered down reform that saw many conditions attached – with the dual citizenship proposal removed entirely. First, non-German parents had to have been resident in Germany for at least eight years for their children to be entitled to German citizenship. Next, at age 23, the children would then need to choose between keeping German citizenship or any other nationality they may have been born with.

At SPD insistence, the CDU-SPD "grand coalition" abolished this requirement in 2014 for children born in Germany. However, anyone applying to naturalise had to, in principle, still choose.

Then 22 year-old student Gökben Akgül poses with her Turkish and German IDs in Wuppertal in 2014. Before 2014, many dual Turkish-Germans had to choose which nationality to keep by their 23rd birthday. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Thissen

The 1999 reform also reduced the time required for naturalisation from 15 years to eight and allowed dual citizenship with other EU countries. It remains the basis for many German citizenship rules today.

READ ALSO: 'I'll be proud to finally become German': Foreigners react as dual citizenship law passes

2008-2013: The Merkel years see racism allegations and a hard ‘Nein’ to citizenship reform

The Merkel years saw repeated attempts to liberalise parts of Germany’s nationality law – all of which were repeatedly quashed by the ruling CDU.

In 2008, Berlin and Bremen, cities with large immigrant communities that are federal states in their own right, brought a motion before Germany’s upper house, the Bundesrat, to stop people born in Germany with dual citizenship from having to choose which passport they wanted to keep at age 23. Conservatives quashed the motion without debate. Two years later, Brandenburg would join Berlin and Bremen in filing another Bundesrat motion – but, once again, the proposal never got off the ground.

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From the mid-2000s to 2017, every party in the Bundestag other than the CDU – including its various coalition partners – broke with the conservatives over dual citizenship and demanded the law be changed. Current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then SPD parliamentary leader, said in 2011 the requirement to choose nationalities was a mistake his party made that needed to be corrected. The current draft law allowing dual citizenship is now before his office for a final constitutional review before it can become law.

In 2013, Merkel’s own Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of the liberal Free Democrats, called for the law to be changed.

Less than a week later, the Greens would push yet another Bundesrat motion to get rid of the requirement to choose which citizenship to keep while then Chancellor Angela Merkel was on a state visit to Turkey. There, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even publicly demanded that Merkel drop her opposition to dual citizenship. At Erdogan’s public encouragement, Turkey even began reissuing Turkish passports to those who had given them up to remain German.

Cem Özdemir, then Green Party Chair, pickets CDU headquarters in 2013 with other Green protestors, demanding the right to dual citizenship. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Michael Kappeler

Yet, Merkel’s CDU would not budge.

In 2008, the SPD’s Sebastian Edathy, then chairing the Bundestag’s Interior Committee, went so far as to accuse his CDU coalition partner of "biologism and racial ideology" for wanting to ditch even the 1999 reform in favour of a largely bloodline-only citizenship law.

"That would drag us back to the 19th century," Edathy told the Die Welt newspaper at the time. "The time is ripe to rid the multiple nationality discussion of ideology and to search for pragmatic solutions."

READ ALSO: CHECKLIST: What do I need to apply for German citizenship under the new law?

2016-2020: Brexit sparks British race to become German

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 put many of the 107,000 Brits living in Germany in a race against time.

With Germany then allowing dual citizenship generally only to people naturalising from other EU countries, a vote to leave the EU would legally mean that Brits becoming German after Brexit would have to renounce their British passports.

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Following the referendum vote, Berlin was slow to make guarantees as to what rights Brits would enjoy in Germany after Brexit, with EU governments waiting to see what London would do for UK-resident EU nationals.

Lawyers initially wrangled with the question of whether a Brit who applied to become German before Brexit but only received a German passport after Brexit would have to renounce British nationality.

The uncertainty kickstarted a flood of citizenship applications from Brits. In 2016, there was 361 percent increase in the number of British citizens naturalising as German. German citizenship applications in 2016 and 2017 shot up fivefold. The years immediately after the Brexit vote saw Brits second only to Turks as the nationality most often naturalising as German.

Dual British and German nationality

A dual British and German national holds up their passports. Under upcoming new rules, Brits will be able to take on German citizenship after living in Germany for five years, while retaining UK nationality. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Holger Hollemann

Eventually, lobbying efforts by the British in Germany group allowed Brits applying to become German to retain their UK nationality if they applied before the end of the transition period on December 31st, 2020.

Under the current rules, Brits applying to become German from 2021 onward still generally have to renounce British nationality to become German, with the UK having legally left the EU. This is, of course, set to change again after the new law takes effect.

READ ALSO: TEST - Could you pass the German citizenship exam?

2019-2021: Germany makes it easier for descendants of Nazi victims to reclaim citizenship

German citizenship has generally allowed dual citizenship by birth, even if it has forced many who become German by choice to choose. After WWII, Germany made it possible for people – typically Jews - who had their citizenship revoked during the Nazi years to reclaim it. This right also passed to their descendants, but had many loopholes – particularly people tracing their German ancestry through their mothers.

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In 2019, the federal government clarified many of these loopholes, and eased the German language requirements for people claiming citizenship this way – even generations later.

READ ALSO: ‘We reclaimed what was taken from my Jewish grandparents – German citizenship’

2021-present: Progressive ‘traffic light’ coalition opens way for dual citizenship

Up until only a few months before the 2021 federal election, polls still gave Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats a diminished, but still clear lead. As the race tightened, it became clearer that there was a possibility of forming a federal governing coalition without the CDU – long since the major opponent of citizenship reform.

Germany’s SPD-led ‘traffic light’ coalition with the Greens and FDP negotiated a reform to dual citizenship restrictions in their coalition agreement – signed just before the new government took office in December 2021.

Members of Germany's new 'traffic light' government brandish a coalition agreement, including plans to liberalise dual citizenship, in December 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Local readers described the change as ‘long overdue,’ although the government initially gave no indications as to when exactly it would get around the changing the law, leaving many waiting ‘in limbo.’

"The longer it takes for reform to happen, the more impact this will have on my professional and personal lives," Kirstin Sharpin, a professional soprano holding UK and New Zealand citizenship, told The Local at the time. “Applying immediately would mean opening a huge can of worms and huge legal fees in an attempt to retain my current citizenships, both of which are vital to my work.”

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Finally, in October 2022, The Local first confirmed that the German Interior Ministry would present a draft law for the Bundestag to debate in December 2022, with parliamentarians from all three governing parties ready to pass it.

Yet the three parties in the governing coalition soon squabbled over everything from whether people on benefits should be able to naturalise under the new law, to how to bar anti-Semites from German citizenship, leading to repeated delays before parliamentarians finally reached a final deal in December.

Finally, on January 19th, the Bundestag passed dual citizenship in Germany by a vote of 382-243 with 23 abstentions. Two weeks later, on February 2nd, the Bundesrat - or the upper chamber representing Germany's federal states - followed suit.

The draft law now heads to the Federal President's Office for a mostly ceremonial review, to make sure it is in line with the German constitution. Three months from the day the President certifies the law, it will enter into force.

Reem Alabali Radovan

Reem Alabali-Radovan, the government's commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, speaks in the Bundestag citizenship debate on Friday, January 19th, 2024 - the day the Bundestag passed dual citizenship. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

For Filiz Polat, Migration and Integration Speaker for the Greens in the Bundestag, the new law also carries an important historical meaning.

"We are ending the gradual erosion of citizenship law and building on the first major reform under the Red-Green coalition in 2000, which broke with the tradition of the Wilhelmine Reich and Citizenship Act for the first time,” she told The Local.

“And more than 20 years after that unspeakable Doppelpass (dual passport) campaign, naturalisation for everyone will finally be possible, accepting multiple citizenship. This is long overdue."

READ ALSO: What documents should you get after getting German citizenship?

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