Modernisation of German citizenship: completing the paradigm shift of 2000

Martin Weinmann (Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB))

On January 19, 2024, the German Bundestag passed a reform of the German Citizenship Act. The so-called “Act on the Modernisation of Citizenship Law” is intended to facilitate access to German citizenship and enable dual citizenship. The coalition partners from the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats had agreed in principle to reform the Citizenship Act in their coalition agreement in the autumn of 2021. However, the first draft bill already deviated from the originally agreed reform plans with regard to the possibilities of dual citizenship. Moreover, the draft bill draft bill was amended during the legislative process. Like the larger and more comprehensive citizenship reform of 2000, the amendment is now dividing Germany’s political parties.

In this blog post, I summarise the main changes to the law, point out important changes to the original draft during the legislative process and briefly discuss the political positions on the reform. I also situate the current reform in the context of the reforms of German citizenship law since the early 1990s and thus show how German citizenship law has been increasingly liberalised and a continuous shift towards a more open citizenship law has taken place.

Citizenship Modernisation Act: facilitating the acquisition of citizenship and tightening naturalisation requirements

The latest reform of the German citizenship law is intended to make it easier to acquire German citizenship. Two main changes have been made to this end: The most fundamental one is that, in future, multiple nationalities will be accepted in principle. In practice, nationals of certain countries were already exempt from the obligation to renounce their nationality (e.g. EU citizens) when acquiring a German passport, which in practice meant that the original nationality could be retained in three quarters of all naturalisations. De jure, however, the basic principle of avoiding multiple nationalities continued to apply and had a negative impact on the naturalisation decisions of immigrants (Weinmann 2021).

As a result of the current reform, naturalisation applicants no longer will have to give up their previous citizenship when applying for naturalisation. Correspondingly, Germans no longer automatically lose their citizenship if they acquire a foreign citizenship. Such a general acceptance of dual citizenship in the context of naturalisation was not originally envisaged in the coalition agreement between the governing parties. Rather, it was agreed to review how to prevent foreign citizenships from passing down across multiple generations. This so-called generational cut off was not included in the draft law, which is partly due to the fact that such a regulation would be difficult to implement in practice. By completely abandoning the principle of avoiding multiple nationality, Germany is following the global trend of increasing acceptance of dual nationality (e.g. Sejersen 2008, van der Baaren 2020, Vink 2022).

The second key innovation to facilitate the acquisition of German citizenship is the shortening of the required period of residence. This reduction affects both the conditional ius soli introduced in 2000 and naturalisation: In the future, children of foreign parents will receive German citizenship at birth if one parent has lived legally in Germany for at least five years and has an unlimited right of residence – previously, the parent had to have lived legally in Germany for at least eight years. The reform also shortens the period of residence in Germany required for naturalisation from eight to five years. The length of residence in Germany required for naturalisation is thus aligned with the “emerging global standard” (Schmid 2022). In 114 of 190 countries worldwide, the minimum period of residence required for naturalisation is less than the eight years previously required in Germany; in 77 countries worldwide, a minimum period of residence of five years is required, which will now also be the case in Germany (Vink 2022).

Further facilitations concern people with “special integration achievements” and former guest workers. For the former, naturalisation is now possible after just three years of residence (previously six), for example if the person is civically engaged (e.g. as part of a longer period of voluntary work for a non-profit organization or an association) or can demonstrate particularly good educational, vocational or professional achievements. For former guest workers, the level of German language skills (B1) is now limited to oral proficiency and a naturalisation test is no longer be required. As part of the parliamentary procedure, the German Bundestag has also extended these exemptions to spouses of former guest workers who have immigrated through family reunification. Furthermore, in cases of particular hardships, the naturalisation requirement of sufficient knowledge of German can also be reduced to the ability to communicate orally in German in everyday life without major problems.

On the other hand, some naturalisation conditions have been made stricter. For instance, being able to secure one’s own livelihood remains a prerequisite for naturalisation. However, exceptions to this test are now more strictly limited to certain cases. Previously, this requirement could be met despite receiving social benefits if a naturalisation applicant could not be held responsible for their situation. This rule has now been abolished. Exceptions can only be claimed by former guest workers, full-time employees as well as their spouses or registered partners, provided they live with them and a minor child in the same household. This exception was extended by Parliament also to the spouses of guest workers who came to Germany through family reunification. As a result of the stricter requirement of securing one’s own livelihood, certain groups may no longer meet the requirements for naturalisation, e.g. because they receive supplementary social benefits. The parties in the governing coalition have therefore emphasised in the parliamentary process that hardship regulations should apply to the groups affected if those affected have done everything objectively possible and subjectively reasonable to secure their own livelihood on a permanent basis.

As part of the reform, the previous naturalisation requirement of “integration into German living conditions” was abandoned and replaced by specific grounds for exclusion from naturalisation. For example, naturalisation is denied in cases of polygamy or disregard for the equal rights of women and men. In addition, people who have committed anti-Semitic or racist crimes will be denied naturalisation. Although this exclusion was already foreseen in the past, the naturalisation authorities are now obliged to work more closely with the public prosecutor’s offices in order to implement it more effectively.

Applicants for naturalisation must continue to commit to the free democratic basic order of the German constitution. In view of Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, the German government’s draft law was expanded to include an additional requirement during the parliamentary process: a commitment to Germany’s special historical responsibility for the unjust National Socialist regime and its consequences, in particular for the protection of Jewish life, as well as to the peaceful coexistence of peoples and the prohibition of waging a war of aggression.

The law comes into force three months after its promulgation. This is intended to give the citizenship authorities adequate organizational preparation time, e.g. for adapting application forms, informations for applicants, etc.

Debates on the reform: old lines of conflict remain

The result of the vote clearly shows how divided the political parties are on the amendment to the law: 382 MPs voted in favor of the amendment, 234 against, and 23 abstained. The parties of the centre-left coalition essentially emphasized the modernisation of the law and the recognition of people who have been living in Germany with foreign citizenship for some time. At the same time, they emphasized the importance of the reform for the democratic system and the global competition for skilled workers. In contrast, the opposition centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has blocked similar far-reaching reform attempts in the past, stated that the amendment diminishes the value of German citizenship (see a post by Samuel D. Schmid on this blog that refutes this assessment). The CDU/CSU parliamentary group had submitted its own motion entitled “Preserving the value of German citizenship“, which was voted on in parallel and rejected by a majority. The CDU has been particularly critical of dual citizenship: The dual passport would not require naturalised citizens to make a clear commitment to Germany and would increase the political influence of foreign states in Germany. As expected, criticism from the far-right anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was even harsher this time, calling out such a “sell-out” (Verramschung) of German citizenship.

The reform in the context of earlier reforms: a continuous shift towards a more open citizenship law

In Germany, it was for a long time unthinkable that immigrants and their offspring would automatically become citizens (Brubaker 1992). Citizenship was solely based on the ius sanguinis-principle and immigrants did not have any legal claim to acquire citizenship through naturalisation up to the early 1990s. At that time Germany began to slowly reform its citizenship regulations. It was only with the 1990 Foreigners Act and in the course of the so-called asylum compromise of 1993 that the first fundamental changes were made, which were followed by further reform steps: naturalisation was initially made easier for foreigners from the former recruitment countries of so-called guest workers for a limited period of time. This possibility was eventually made permanent and extended. In 1993, foreign nationals between the ages of 16 and 23 who had been resident for at least eight years and those who had been resident for at least 15 years became entitled to naturalisation for the first time. This was intended to promote the integration of foreigners who had lived in Germany for many years and their descendants. However, a real paradigm shift only took place with the fundamental reform in 1999. It introduced the possibility of acquiring German citizenship by birth in Germany for children of foreign parents (ius soli) and significantly lowered the requirements for naturalisation, e.g. the prescribed period of residence. Although the original draft bill of the coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens also provided for a broad acceptance of dual citizenship, dual citizenship was not generally permitted in the final draft of the Citizenship Act. The failure of this part of the 1999 reform could be attributed to an intensive political campaign and a change in the balance of power in the Bundesrat whose approval was required for the reform of the Citizenship Act. Due to the shift in the balance of power in the second federal legislative chamber, the CDU/CSU was able to act as veto player and prevent the introduction of dual citizenship planned by the red-green government (Green 2005). However, the Citizenship Act, which came into force on January 1, 2000, did not prohibit dual citizenship for immigrants from all countries equally. Naturalised EU citizens (as well as Swiss citizens) were initially allowed to retain their citizenship under the condition of reciprocity (i.e. if the respective country also allows dual citizenship for Germans). Changes made in the aftermath of the reform even led to dual citizenship being generally accepted for immigrants from these countries since 2007. Moreover, as part of the conditional ius soli introduced in 2000, children born in Germany to foreign parents automatically receive German citizenship as well as their parents’ citizenship if at least one parent has been legally resident in Germany for eight years and has a permanent right of residence. Until the end of 2014, these children had to choose between German citizenship and the citizenship of their parents until the age of 23 (option scheme). This obligation was largely abolished by an amendment in 2014 (Winter & Patzelt 2015).

The 2024 reform can be seen as a continuation of the reforms carried out since the early 1990s: At that time, regulations on naturalisation for former guest workers were created for the first time. Today, the possibilities of naturalisation are made much easier for this group in particular. This is not only in recognition of their contribution to the country, but also due to the acknowledgement that the lack of integration opportunities for this group has made their integration more difficult, which may have resulted in certain naturalisation requirements, such as the required language level, not being met. Moreover, by completely abandoning the principle of avoiding multiple nationalities with the current reform, Germany is completing a paradigm shift that was initiated with the 2000 nationality reform. The political left pursued its goal of making dual citizenship possible in principle for a quarter of a century until it had the necessary majority. During this time, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did not give up its opposition to the toleration of dual citizenship. However, it was not able to use its power as a veto player as it did in 1999/2000. The main reason for this is that two reforms of federalism have since taken place in Germany, which have changed the criteria for approval of federal laws by the Bundesrat, the chamber representing the federal states, meaning that fewer laws require approval.