OPINION: I became a German citizen to vote but paying taxes should have been enough

Brian Melican
Brian Melican - [email protected]
OPINION: I became a German citizen to vote but paying taxes should have been enough
A German citizen places a vote at Hamburg polling station. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marcus Brandt

The government's reforms to citizenship law are a step in the right direction, writes Brian Melican, but should it really be necessary for foreigners to take this step in order to cast their vote? Paying taxes should be enough.


It was my anniversary recently, and once again, I completely forgot it. As of 15th April, we’ve been married for seven years, Germany and I. We got together a long time before that, of course, flirting in 2006 and then shacking up together in 2008 before, in mid-2015, I decided to propose (read: go to the Einwohnerzentralamt). Before the year was out, Germany had made an honest citizen of me in legal terms, but I always count 15th April 2016 as our wedding day: that’s when I was invited to Hamburg’s imposing town hall to receive my citizenship certificate from the then-Mayor of our fair city, one Olaf Scholz.

Truth be told, our relationship has been up and down since then – my relationship with Germany, that is, not with Mr. Scholz, to whom (state prosecutors following up on the cum-ex dividends scandal, take note!) nothing more than that fleeting handshake connects me. In the years prior to getting citizenship, and for a while after, Germany and I were very much in love – and love, as they say, is blind. While that’s something of an exaggeration in my view, love certainly does put the rose-tinted spectacles on and make you more forgiving of each other’s less attractive traits.

That’s probably why, although I was aware we had a dangerously Russophile elite patently jeopardising our energy security (and, accordingly, bought emergency electric radiators back in 2014 after Putin annexed the Crimea) and certainly disliked some of Germany’s more pedantic tendencies, I was pretty sure I’d made the right choice. Of course, these character flaws have since come to the fore, thanks to Covid and the full-scale invasion of the Ukraine, and made our relationship more difficult. But we’re still together, still just about getting along. After all, we’ve taken solemn vows: I pledged to respect Germany’s constitution and Germany pledged to treat me as one of its own.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Critics need to wake up to the reality of dual citizenship in Germany


Gaining the right to vote

Looking back on it, besides the sheer practicality of finally getting a handy credit-card-sized ID card and the (as it turned out: quite perspicacious) sense of foreboding I felt at the prospect of the UK referendum on leaving the EU, my primary motivation for taking German nationality was simple: I wanted to be able to vote in national elections. Having paid income tax in Germany for seven years and intending to pay it for at least another seven, it was only logical that I should want to have some say in how things were run; especially since Merkel’s delaying tactics on, well, everything were already driving me to despair back in 2015 – a despair I wanted to register at the ballot box in the 2017 elections to the Bundestag.

I remember thinking at the time that, while I had absolutely nothing against getting German citizenship – indeed, was quite enthusiastic about the idea – there was, strictly speaking, something wrong with the fact that I had to in order to vote. It certainly struck me that Germany had been more than happy to let me earn and pay my taxes (and was somewhat demanding on this latter point) and that it would have let me do so for the rest of my life without conferring on me in return the right to have my say in how these tax Euros were spent. I’m not quite sure that’s fair.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

Germany's electronic tax-filing portal, Elster

Germany's electronic tax-filing portal, Elster. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

If that sounds whining or petty, it’s worth remembering that revolutions have been triggered over exactly this point: ‘no taxation without representation’ was a precept of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the slogan having been coined by Boston politician James Otis, who declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny”.

Not exceptional - but reprehensible

On the subject of fairness, though, I should say that I’m not singling out Germany as a particularly egregious example. The citizenship process here is comparatively smooth for German bureaucracy, reasonably priced, and faultlessly friendly: as ever, there are regional differences (in left-wing, cosmopolitan Hamburg, the state is generally more welcoming of newcomers than in, say, Bavaria) and some people’s cases are more complex than mine (white man with one easily-documentable European nationality seeks other European nationality); but by and large, Germany does not make it excessively hard for long-term residents to obtain citizenship. Moreover, I have no quarrels with the requirements: it seems reasonable to ask applicants to document a basic knowledge of the country and the language, no criminal convictions, a minimum number of years spent living here.


That the tripartite coalition is now lowering the number of years required and, more importantly, extending the possibility of holding multiple nationalities to many numerous, yet previously marginalised groups, is a welcome step further down the road to becoming a society truly at ease with its cosmopolitan reality – and to fulfilling its dreams of attracting skilled immigrant labour. Compared to many of our neighbouring countries, we will have some of the most generous and attractive citizenship conditions. That is unquestionably a good thing.

READ ALSO: How could Germany’s planned reforms to citizenship law change?

Yet as a general principle, I think it is reprehensible that any country should deduct money from long-term residents’ wages without giving them the right to vote. The right to vote doesn’t, by the way, necessarily have to mean citizenship: there may be good reasons why some long-term residents don’t want or need it (perhaps they plan to return to their home countries or move on elsewhere). Yet in my view, anyone in a tax system for more than a few years must be entitled to some form of proper representation. Germany should lead the way by offering them this – especially if they come from one the numerous countries which, even following the reform, will not be on the dual-nationality list.


Maybe that’s one reason I so rarely remember my April anniversary: although there certainly was an emotional component to getting citizenship and while the day itself was lovely (Olaf Scholz certainly puts on a good spread!), the day that really matters to me generally only comes round every four years in September.


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