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

Germany is set to change its nationality law to allow dual citizenship without restrictions in early 2023. The path here has been long, and often fraught with controversy. We look at the highlights.

HISTORY: What's behind the push to reform dual citizenship laws in Germany?
The German Christian Democrats have a history of opposing citizenship reform, and blocked a 1999 proposal to allow it in the Bundesrat after spearheading a petition against it. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa | Arne_Dedert

Germany has long had fairly strict limits to holding dual or multiple citizenship when compared to other countries.

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.

The Bundestag is set to debate a law changing this in December, with parliamentarians telling The Local they expect the new rules to pass by July. For many living in Germany, it marks the beginning of the end of a long wait.

For some who’ve been here for decades, it’s been a very long wait.

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: EXCLUSIVE: German Bundestag to debate law allowing dual citizenship in December

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.

READ ALSO: Do all children born in Germany automatically receive German citizenship?

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.

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.

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Germany must finally allow dual or multiple citizenship’

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

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 must, 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: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about applying for German citizenship

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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 proposed 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.

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.

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.”

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

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. The ministry and parliamentarians from all three government parties have since confirmed to The Local that the new law will allow dual citizenship in both directions, although a requirement to choose may still be put in place for grandchildren of people naturalising as German, if they have claim to another citizenship.

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.”

If the Interior Ministry presents the law by December, as planned, parliamentarians expect the new rules to pass by summer 2023.

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How ‘tolerated’ migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

The Bundestag has passed a law that will see people with a 'tolerated stay' gain a new path to permanent residency in Germany. Here's some background on the controversial law - and what it means for migrants.

How 'tolerated' migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

What’s going on?

After a fierce exchange of blows between politicians from the governing traffic-light coalition and the CDU/CSU parties, the Bundestag passed their so-called “right of opportunity to stay” (Chancel-Aufenthaltsrecht) law on Friday.

In the parliamentary vote, 371 MPs from the traffic-light coalition parties – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FPD) – voted in favour of the bill. A total of 226 parliamentarians voted against, including 157 CDU/CSU MPs, 66 MPs from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and three independents. 

Politicians from the left-wing Linke party, as well as a number of CDU/CSU MPs and three FDP MPs, were among the 57 who abstained. 

The law aims to provide a new path to residency for people who had lived in Germany on a ‘tolerated stay’ permit for at least five years by October 31st, 2022. This group will now be given 18 months to fulfil the criteria for permanent residency, which includes proving at least B1 German language skills and showing that they can financially support themselves. 

However, people who have committed crimes or given false information about their identity won’t have the opportunity to apply for a residence permit.  

READ ALSO: How Germany is planning new path to residency for migrants

What exactly is a ‘tolerated stay’?

A tolerated stay permit, or Duldung, is granted to people who are theoretically barred from staying in Germany but are, in practice, unable to leave. That could be due to their health, caring duties, the situation in their home country or a lack of identification papers. 

It’s estimated that around 136,600 people have been living in the country on this status for at least five years, including people who have sought asylum but whose applications have been turned down. 

Germany has historically dealt with these tricky situations by suspending deportation and instead offering a ‘Duldung’, which allows the person in question to stay for the time being. 

More recently, special statuses for migrants who end up in vocational training or work have been added, enabling some migrants to enter training or employment while living on a tolerated stay permit. 

However, the situation for many has remained precarious. Since tolerated status is meant to be temporary, authorities often end up issuing multiple permits over time, causing stress and uncertainty for migrants and additional paperwork for the state. 

How will life change for this group of people? 

For those who speak a bit of German and have a secure livelihood, things could become a lot easier in future. 

Those who have been here at least five years will be given an 18-month permit which will give them time to switch from a tenuous tolerated status to official permanent residency. In addition, people aged 27 or under and particularly well-integrated adults will be given this opportunity after just three years of residence.

This in turn would allow them to take up work or training, become self-employed, start a business and also claim social benefits.

Most importantly, they will have the security of knowing that they are allowed to remain in the country as long as they want to and will be able to show an official residence permit to employers, landlords and public authorities.

Woman protests against deportation Germany

A woman holds up a ‘Stop Deportation’ sign at a protest outside Berlin-Brandenburg airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

What’s more, they should also have an easier time when trying to reunite with close family members. 

However, some people could still slip through the net. According to official statistics, 242,000 people currently live in Germany on a tolerated status – meaning than more than 100,000 won’t be covered by the new law. And this will also be the case for people who end up with a Duldung in the future. 

Even among those who have been here for five years or longer, one key condition for permanent residency – proving their identity – could remain a major hurdle. However, the law does offer people a chance to get around this if they have taken “necessary and reasonable measures” to clarify their identity.

READ ALSO: How to get fast-track permanent residency rights in Germany

What has the response been to the new law?

Unsurprisingly, the governing SDP – who drafted the law – have argued that their approach will finally give people a humane route to staying in Germany on a permanent basis.

“We are ending the current practice of chain toleration,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), referring to the practice of giving multiple tolerated status notices over time. “In doing so, we are also putting an end to the uncertainty that often lasts for years for people who have long since become part of our society.”

Adis Ahmetovic, who grew up as a child as a ‘tolerated’ migrant, spoke in the Bundestag of his own difficulties and said he had even faced deportation orders. “It clearly didn’t work, because now I’m an elected MP,” he said, adding that the right of opportunity law was a move towards “fairness, participation, recognition and respect”.

However, not everyone has been positive about the change, with the CDU and CSU parties in particular speaking out against it. Deputy parliamentary party leader Andrea Lindholz (CSU) told the government it would be better to focus “on those who are really entitled to protection”.

CDU Andrea Lindholz

CDU deputy parliamentary leader Andrea Lindholz speaks out against the “right of opportunity” law in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

For well-integrated long-term tolerated migrants, there are already enough exceptions and pragmatic solutions, she added. 

Axel Ströhlein, president of the Bavarian State Office for Asylum and Repatriation, also criticised the fact that the path to residency would only apply to people who had already been deemed ineligible for asylum or protection from deportation. He said the new regulation would undermine the meaning and purpose of the right to asylum and could send the signal that a lack of cooperation is worthwhile and leads to a residence title.

Others, however, welcomed the change but said it didn’t go far enough.

Kristian Garthus-Niegel of the Saxon Refugee Council had spoken out in support of the Linke’s proposed amendment to effectively end the ‘tolerated’ status by removing the cut-off date for long-term residence specified in the law. This amendment was rejected in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: ‘Dangerous and wrong’: Why German MPs are clashing over citizenship plans

Are there any other important changes to know about? 

Yes. Skilled workers who come to Germany will also have an easier time bringing their family over in future as the government has permanently waived language requirements for spouses of highly qualified workers. 

In addition, they want to make language and integration courses far more widely available and speed up the process of applying for asylum in future. 

People who have committed crimes or who are considered dangerous, on the other hand, will be removed from the country more easily and swiftly.