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‘Hybrid identities’: why Germany is updating its citizenship rules

Esad Sahin has lived in Germany for 10 years, but is still not a German citizen. Reason: Strict ban on dual citizenship, which would force him to surrender his Turkish passport.

It was never an option for him. “It’s part of my personality,” he said. “I wanted to be part of German society, but not at the cost of my Turkish citizenship.”

Soon he would not have to face such a dilemma. The German parliament is close to passing a new citizenship law that will make it much easier for foreigners to acquire German citizenship. This is seen as a small revolution in the country’s attitude towards people with an immigrant background. This also contrasts sharply with the trend in neighboring countries to tighten rather than loosen citizenship criteria.

The bill will allow people to apply for citizenship after just five years of living in Germany, rather than eight years as it is now. It also says: “Those who have made special efforts to integrate—for example, mastering the German language, doing volunteer work, or doing well in school—may apply after three years.”

But for the authors of the bill, its most important feature is the abolition of the ban on dual citizenship for people from non-EU countries. “Many people in this country have a hybrid identity and our law needs to reflect that,” said Lamia Kaddor, a Greens spokesperson for home affairs and herself a daughter of Syrian immigrants. “The idea that you only have one homeland is completely outdated.”

Esad Shaheen
Esad Sahin: “I wanted to become a part of German society, but not at the cost of my Turkish citizenship” © Olga Weber

The passage of the law could have a huge impact on German society. About 10 million people live in Germany without a German passport – about 12 percent of the population. About 5.7 million of them have lived in the country for at least 10 years.

“From a democratic theory point of view, it is a clear problem that so many people who have lived here for so long cannot vote and have no say in the laws that affect them,” said Niklas Harder of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research. (DeZIM).

Research has also shown the positive benefits of accelerated naturalization, he said. Women’s participation in the labor market is improving, and children, especially boys, are doing better in school.

“There are good studies in Switzerland that show how naturalization leads to higher incomes, higher pensions, more participation in clubs and associations – in short, more social cohesion,” Harder said.

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The citizenship bill is part of a package of reforms promised by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals that was designed to modernize German society after 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU).

The November 2021 coalition agreement also includes plans to legalize cannabis, lower the voting age to 16, and make it easier for people to announce a gender change.

But immigration reform may be the most far-reaching. This promises to be the biggest shake-up of German citizenship rules since 2000, when a new law meant that children born to immigrant parents automatically received German citizenship for the first time.

Georg Mayer (center), Thuringian Minister of the Interior, with newly naturalized citizens at the naturalization festival in the Kaisersal.
Georg Mayer (center), Thuringian Minister of the Interior, with newly naturalized citizens at the Kaisersaal naturalization festival © Martin Schutt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The bill’s preamble states that the naturalization rate in Germany is below the EU average. But he adds that “it is in the interest of the whole society that as many migrants as possible who meet the requirements of the law decide to become naturalized citizens.”

One of those who welcome the proposed changes is Jihene Dammak, a Tunisian who came to Germany almost eight years ago. After graduating as an engineer, she tried to start her own company offering advice and mentoring services to foreign students, but her lack of German citizenship proved to be a major obstacle. “It’s almost impossible to start a business, take out a loan and apply for a grant without a German passport,” she said.

The current system is highly unattractive to the skilled workers Germany is so desperately looking for. “The eight years that you have to live here to qualify for citizenship, you always feel insecure – if you lose your job, you will fly out,” she said. “Eight years is too long.”

The citizenship bill will be combined with immigration reform, which, based on the Canadian points system, is intended to make it easier for skilled workers to enter Germany. Candidates will no longer need to prove that they have a professional qualification recognized in Germany, the relevant work experience and the promise of work will suffice.

But for the opposition CDU, the whole reform – especially accelerated naturalization – is wrong. “Five years is not enough for real integration and establishing whether someone really should become a permanent member of our society,” said CDU spokesman for internal affairs Alexander Trom.

“German citizenship is given forever and cannot be revoked, so you really need to think before you jump,” he said. “Eight years is quite appropriate, given the importance of citizenship in Germany.”

Andrea Lindholz, MP for the Christian Social Union, sister party of the CDU in Bavaria, said allowing dual citizenship would lead to “conflicts of loyalty” and “weakening of social cohesion” in Germany.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party went even further in its criticism. The government “beat out German passports for a pittance for people who weren’t integrated enough,” AfD MP Gottfried Kurion said during one of the debates on the issue in the Bundestag.

However, the biggest obstacle to the new reform is not the views of the CDU and the AfD, but the German bureaucracy. A recent report in the newspaper Die Welt says that local authorities in some of Germany’s largest cities are struggling to cope with a huge influx of citizenship applications: in Berlin alone, 26,000 applications are still pending, with 10,000 of them dating back to 2021 year. Trade unions complain of a severe shortage of qualified staff to handle requests.

However, officials warn that the planned immigration reform could result in a 50-100% increase in applications, which in turn would significantly increase waiting times.

“We hear about naturalization processes that take two years or longer,” Harder said. “The migration authorities are completely stunned. And if they don’t recruit more staff — urgently — we will face administrative chaos.”

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