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EXPLAINED: Why Germany's dual nationality law is running behind schedule

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why Germany's dual nationality law is running behind schedule
A German passport on a desk in the home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Germany's coalition government has ambitious plans to overhaul citizenship laws and allow dual nationality - but the changes could come into force later than expected. Here's what we know about the new bill and when it could be passed in parliament.

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What's going on?

After months of discussions and disagreements, the German government published a draft law setting out key reforms to the country's citizenship laws - including the right to hold multiple nationalities - but it remains unclear whether the Interior Ministry is on track to meet its deadline of passing the bill in summer.

On Friday, May 19th, a draft of the law was published online by the Interior Ministry. This draft is set to be circulated around the federal states and reviewed by external stakeholders before being passed by cabinet and parliament. Speaking to The Local, SPD rapporteur Hakan Demir said he expected the draft to be voted through in cabinet by summer before being sent to the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) later in the year.

"The draft will soon be discussed in the cabinet and then come to us in the Bundestag," he said. "I expect the draft to be passed in the cabinet before the summer."

Previously, FDP rapporteur Stephan Thomae had confirmed that the departmental vote on the citizenship law was in its "final stages". But he refrained from speculating about when the draft would be approved by cabinet. 

The news will be welcomed by many internationals who have been eagerly awaiting the changes to citizenship law - and particularly the right to hold multiple nationalities. As it stands, people from non-EU countries usually have to give up their existing nationality in order to become German, meaning that some people live in the country for decades but never naturalise or gain the right to vote.  

According to the Interior Ministry, around 10.7 million people currently live in Germany without German citizenship - more than half of whom (5.7 million) have been in the country for over 10 years. 

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The ministry hopes the new reforms will boost naturalisation numbers and make Germany more attractive to foreigners.

"We want people who have become part of our society to also be able to help shape our country democratically," said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD). "Good examples like Canada show us that this perspective is also crucial to attracting the skilled workers we urgently need."

However, with internal battles over some aspects of the bill still raging on, there are still some hurdles for Faeser to clear before Germany's citizenship reforms enter into force. 

READ ALSO: Germany's eagerly-awaited dual citizenship reform hits delays

What do we know about the law so far?

The upcoming citizenship law represents a major overhaul of naturalisation in Germany. Significantly, people from both EU and non-EU countries will be permitted to hold multiple nationalities rather than giving up their existing nationality to become German, as most non-EU citizens currently have to do.

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The time it takes to naturalise will also be drastically reduced from eight years to five, provided applicants can meet other requirements such as passing a citizenship test and proving B1 language skills. In exceptional circumstances, if someone is able to attain C1 German and can prove a high level of integration, naturalisation can take place after just three years. Proving integration may involve exceptional academic or career achievements, undertaking volunteer work, or becoming a member of certain clubs or associations. 

Mridula Singh, originally from India, holds her German passport after the naturalisation ceremony for more nearly 2200 people at the Paulskirche church in Frankfurt am Main in 2018.

Mridula Singh, originally from India, holds her German passport after the naturalisation ceremony for more nearly 2,200 people at the Paulskirche church in Frankfurt am Main in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Fabian Sommer/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The children of foreigners who are born in Germany will be granted automatic citizenship if their parents have been here for five years or more - rather than the previous eight. 

There are also special carve-outs to the language requirements for people over 67 or those who can prove extenuating circumstances, like having to care for an elderly relative and not being able to dedicate time to learning German. For these groups, simply being able to speak and understand German in daily life should be enough to qualify for citizenship. People aged 67 or over are also exempt from having to take a citizenship test. 

Has anything changed in the most recent draft of the law?

While the bill represents a liberalisation of Germany's existing citizenship laws, there are some requirements that will become tougher for prospective applicants.

A major condition for naturalisation is that applicants must be able to secure their own and their family's livelihood without relying help from the state - which means that they shouldn't be claiming benefits such as Sozialhilfe (social welfare) or Bürgergeld (long-term unemployment benefits). 

People who do claim some form of benefits must show that they've been in full-time work or employment for 20 out of the previous 24 months at the time of applying. However, there are some carve-outs for certain groups, such as people from the guest worker generation and married couples with young children whose spouses work full-time. 

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According to Hakan Demir, the SPD is likely to push back on the "full-time work" clause when the bill is debated in parliament. Insisting that people who claim social welfare are in full-time employment will exclude many women, he said. "We have to prevent that."

Equally, a controversial clause citing a requirement for "integration into German living conditions" has been scrapped in the new citizenship law. Critics had argued that the clause had been used to discriminate against certain types of foreigners.

Instead, the bill mentions two key issues that can prevent people from becoming naturalised as German.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The key points of Germany's draft law on dual citizenship

The first is if a foreigner is "married to more than one spouse at the same time, or demonstrates by his or her behaviour that he or she disregards the equal rights of men and women laid down in the Basic Law."

The second involves "anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic or other acts motivated by contempt for humanity", which contravene the Basic Law and also prohibit naturalisation, according to the draft. 

"There is zero tolerance here," said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD). "Anyone who does not share our values cannot become a German."

A man presents a German and a British passport

A man presents a German and a British passport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

On a more positive note, the latest version of the bill envisions big public ceremonies for new Germans to receive their documentation, since "naturalisation is a cause for celebration".

"The state can be happy about every new citizen who now has equal rights," the Interior Ministry explains. "The bill therefore stipulates that the naturalisation certificate should be handed out in a ceremonial setting, if possible, in a public naturalisation ceremony and using the national symbols of the Federal Republic of Germany."

Why are the reforms being delayed?

Though the three parties of the traffic-light coalition - the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) - have previously taken a similar line on immigration issues, the bill has been held up by internal disagreements.

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Back in March, a draft of the law was being circulated amongst the various government ministries for review - but battles over key aspects of the bill caused this process to drag on for weeks. 

When the Interior Ministry was working on the draft last November, the FDP had demanded that liberalised citizenship was counterbalanced by new laws making it easier to deport illegal immigrants.

They also questioned whether third- or fourth-generation immigrants should have the right to hold dual nationality and called for tougher requirements for proving financial independence. 

In particular, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) is believed to have pushed to tighten the rules around claiming benefits while (or prior to) applying for citizenship. 

READ ALSO: Why are Germany’s planned citizenship reforms coming under fire?

A German passport

A German passport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

Writing on Twitter shortly after the draft bill was published, Buschmann said: "We're making naturalisation easier for people who work with their own hands. Rules for people who live off the welfare state are being tightened. This creates incentives to take up work and shows that we want immigration into the labour market. Not into the welfare state!"

Government sources also revealed that there were disagreements about the wording of the bill and concerns about whether it would be passed by parliament. 

What are the next steps? 

Currently, the draft is being circulated amongst the state governments and other external stakeholders such as lobbyists and associations. 

The next step will be for the bill to be voted on in cabinet, which Hakan Demir believes will happen in the coming weeks.

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Government officials have previously told The Local that they are hoping to push the bill through in parliament this summer, though this would require a vote in the Bundestag before June 26th - or by the first week of July at the very latest.

A spokesperson for Greens immigration expert Filiz Polat, who is also a rapporteur for the bill, explained that it was likely to be at least four weeks until the cabinet would take a vote.

"The cabinet has not agreed," they said. "This is not yet a draft agreed by the departments, also not an 'agreement of the traffic light'. This vote will take place only after the expiry of the four-week period, which begins today with dispatch to states and associations. And only then will the parliamentary procedure begin."

In a joint statement with Greens interior spokesperson Lamya Kaddor, Polat said it was "high time" Germany had a "modern" citizenship law in place.

"However, there is still no agreed bill in the cabinet," she added. "Time is pressing. Therefore, it is good that the federal states and civil society are involved even before the first departmental participation. After that, the actual parliamentary procedure will begin, in which the parliamentary groups will also be involved in terms of content."

In the likely event that the June deadline is missed and parliament goes into summer recess, a parliamentary vote on the bill would likely be pushed back until at least September. Then, the new law would have to be implemented in the Naturalisation Offices - a process that could also take a number of months. 

READ ALSO: Germany's citizenship reform aims to meet needs of immigrants, draft law reveals

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Comments (1)

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GS 2023/05/20 08:56
It is an illusion that Germany can become like Canada just by changing laws. Attitudes at the grassroots level need to change. Rolling your eyes at people who don’t speak German, for example, and treating people of color differently on Lufthansa flights - examples of things that just don’t happen in the Canadian context.

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