Upgrading German citizenship: The unfounded unease about easing naturalization in Germany

Samuel D. Schmid (University of Lucerne)

Acknowledgment: This post was first published on Verfassungsblog and has been reposted with permission.

As part of their broader agenda to “modernize” immigration laws, Germany’s government has proposed to ease immigrants’ access to citizenship. The opposition – especially the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (‘CDU’) – as well as the liberal government coalition partner Freie Demokratische Partei (‘FDP’) are not happy with this. Among other things, they are concerned that the new law would seriously diminish the value of German citizenship, and insist that immigrants should successfully integrate before they become German nationals.

In this post, I argue that these concerns are unfounded. The argument about integration mischaracterizes the reform as it does not constitute a paradigm-shift when it comes to the integration demanded from future citizens. As before, the integration conditions for ordinary naturalization will continue to be among the strictest across the Western democratic world. The new law should also not be counted as a devaluation but instead as an upgrade of the democratic value of German citizenship. In the age of migration, facilitating the inclusion of immigrants is key for democracies who want to continue to be worth their name.

The new law leaves strict integration conditions virtually untouched

The newly proposed citizenship law involves two primary and two secondary components. The first primary component is the reduction of the residence duration requirement for ordinary naturalization from 8 to 5 years, combined with a further reduction to 3 years for immigrants who have shown exceptional educational and professional performance, strong voluntary civic engagement, or have achieved an excellent command of the German language. The second primary component is the full toleration of multiple citizenship. However, while many nationalities have been exempted from the requirement to renounce their former citizenship when acquiring a German passport, the fundamental principle guiding the law has been to reduce instances of multiple citizenship.

The two secondary components of the reform are related to birthright citizenship and language requirements for the elderly. While birthright citizenship would be facilitated by the shortening of the residence requirement from 8 to 5 years for the parents of children who can automatically acquire German citizenship by birth on German territory, the language requirements for elderly non-nationals (from age 67 onwards) who want to get the passport would be generally lower that those otherwise demanded. This latter provision is particularly relevant for immigrants who migrated to the country as guestworkers decades ago. Overcoming their persistent exclusion would create a more just German democracy and society.

This targeted easing of language requirements for the elderly brings us to a crucial aspect that has been almost completely ignored in the political debate: while German citizenship could be acquired sooner and would no longer mean giving up other citizenships for anyone who does not want to, the strict integration conditions would still apply for ordinary naturalisation. Successful applicants need to be advanced German speakers and have passed a difficult citizenship test. Future citizens must demonstrate that they can support oneself and one’s family without social security or unemployment benefits, and they will be disqualified if they have had criminal convictions in the past. In addition, new citizens have to declare loyalty and express commitment to the German constitution and should not have engaged in hostile activities against the constitution.

Overall, Germany will therefore continue to feature among the strictest countries when it comes to integration requirements. While there are other democracies that demand similar levels of integration (for example the other German-speaking countries of Switzerland and Austria), no other Western liberal democracy could be counted as being more restrictive when it comes to integration conditions for ordinary naturalisation (according to the data compiled by Schmid 2021). Hence, claiming that the new law would put citizenship before integration constitutes a mischaracterisation of the proposal. Even the three-year fast-track citizenship for “special integration achievements” will not alter the integration-demanding basis of German citizenship law, which has been created in several steps before, during, and after the paradigm-shifting citizenship reform by a red-green coalition government in 2000. That law also reduced residence requirement from 15 to 8 years. It introduced territorial birthright citizenship conditional upon 8 years of legal and permanent residence of the parents. The new law is therefore only a small step towards a more liberal approach. It would not be right to call this a second paradigm-shift.

The remarkable shift towards dual citizenship toleration

The only component of the policy that could be interpreted as a paradigm-shift in a very specific area is the move towards full and non-discriminatory toleration of dual citizenship. So far, Germany has resisted a strong international trend that allows for multiple nationalities for both immigrants and emigrants (Howard 2009; Vink et al. 2019; Schmid 2021). While there are many exceptions for many immigrants, especially those from other EU member states, Germany has stuck to the outdated principle that multiple nationalities must be avoided as much as possible. The continued application of this principle can be interpreted as a trace of Germany’s ethnic national identity and the related desire to culturally assimilate migrants. This has been a major deterrent for non-EU immigrants to apply for citizenship. The most important group here is the Turkish community in Germany, who have suffered from exclusion and marginalization in many other respects.

This route to full toleration of dual citizenship that does not discriminate on the basis of the country of origin has been spurred by several reforms. Most importantly, since 2014, children who were born to Turkish or other non-national non-EU parents and obtained citizenship by virtue of birth in Germany were no longer required to give up one of their citizenships between the age of 18 and 23. Departing completely from the underlying principle to avoid multiple nationalities, the new law could upend the eternal debate on this issue in German citizenship politics and move the country into contemporary reality of accepting transnational affiliations and social spaces, as most democracies have done. The opponents of the law – most prominently the center-right conservative party CDU – are clearly trapped in 20th century nationalist thinking. They are worried that immigrants with more than one passport will have conflicting loyalties. But this concern is unfounded, too. Survey data has shown that immigrants, while sometimes being torn between cultures, are not fundamentally “divided” but instead successfully accommodate multiple identities (Schlenker 2016). Quasi-experimental data from Switzerland – a country that allows dual citizenship – demonstrates further that naturalisation has fostered the long-term integration of immigrants in many areas of social and political life (Hainmueller et al. 2015, 2017).

Germany as a “modern immigration country”

Another claim of the opponents of the new proposal, led by CDU leader Friedrich Merz, is that other countries are much more restrictive in citizenship than Germany. However, available scientific evidence tells another story. We have already seen that Germany’s integration conditions remain among the most restrictive in Western democracies. When looking at citizenship laws more broadly, while there are certainly countries that are more exclusive, Germany currently ranks as one of the more exclusive Western immigrant-receiving liberal democracies. The new law would “normalize” German citizenship law. It would move away from countries like Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, and Japan, and closer to countries like Belgium, Finland, and France. The toleration of dual citizenship and the lowering of the residence requirement to 5 years would make Germany converge with the emerging global standard (Schmid 2021; Vink 2022).

These changes are also likely to boost Germany’s comparatively low naturalization rates. For more than a decade, almost each and every year, no more than 1.5 percent of non-national residents in Germany acquire citizenship. These numbers are bad news for the legitimacy of Germany’s democracy. The higher the number of long-term residents and taxpayers who are excluded from full membership and the democratic process although being fully subjected to the country’s laws, the lower the quality of the democratic process (Blatter et al. 2017). The new citizenship law would – when seen from the perspective of democratic theory – therefore not devalue but instead significantly enhance the democratic value of German nationality.

Comparative citizenship policy measures also show that some Western democracies such as Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand and Canada would still be much more inclusive than Germany even after the reform. This puts into perspective the claim that the new citizenship law would create strong incentives to migrate to Germany. While we know that citizenship regulations are of major appeal (Fitzgerald et al. 2014), there are many other destinations that make it much easier for immigrants to obtain a valuable passport of an affluent Western nation.

Overall, the proposed new citizenship law will help transform Germany into a “modern immigration country” that improves the inclusive character of its democracy and embraces the cultural diversity and transnational identities of its members – while maintaining the strict integration requirements aiming to guarantee that new citizens are sufficiently prepared to contribute positively to German society. Those who question this conclusion must revisit the normative and empirical bases on which their claims are founded.