New Government Pushes Plan to Loosen Citizenship Rules


For the more than 7 million residents of Germany who have no citizenship in this country, the war for equal rights has just been won with the new government’s decision to relax long-insurmountable conditions for gaining German passports.

On the other hand, the battles have only begun.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government of Social Democrats and environmentalist Greens moved so swiftly in setting out its legislative priorities that even some of the strongest proponents of a more liberal citizenship law were caught by surprise.

In its declaration of objectives after taking office last week, the coalition advocated reducing the residency requirement for citizenship from 15 years to eight and granting citizenship to anyone born of a foreigner who arrived legally in Germany before the age of 14. Most significantly, the new government said it will lift a virtual ban on dual citizenship.


“The changes are much bigger than we were expecting,” says Cem Oezdemir, a Greens party lawmaker of Turkish descent who has help lead the effort to lower the hurdles to citizenship. “Now the principle has been accepted that a child born here is not a foreigner, not just a guest in this country.”

Of the 7.3 million noncitizens among Germany’s 84 million residents, as many as 70% met the conditions for citizenship as proposed by the new government, Oezdemir estimates.

But even the most optimistic supporters acknowledge that the slow-motion mechanics of making such a significant change in law will require at least a year. Previous Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, has vowed to fight the proposal. Wolfgang Schaeuble, expected to be elected the CDU’s new leader Saturday, this week repeated Kohl’s long-standing view that “Germany is not a land of immigration.”

Leaving Germany’s noncitizens without voting rights or a voice in social affairs has been blamed for fostering anti-foreigner sentiments in regions with high unemployment.

The unexpected element of Schroeder’s proposal was the decision to allow applicants to at least temporarily retain their original citizenship.

Under the citizenship law now in force--which Kohl’s government categorically refused to amend--any foreigner seeking a German passport had to first renounce other citizenship.


No restrictions have been mentioned by Schroeder’s team on how long a naturalized German would be allowed to keep his or her original passport. But even the most vocal supporters of change argue that a choice should have to be made at some point.

“From our point of view, dual citizenship is something that should not be allowed forever but as a transitional instrument to assist integration,” says Guido Westerwelle, general manager of the Free Democratic Party. His party governed with the CDU for the past 16 years but was never able to persuade the dominant party to accept its proposals for a new citizenship law.

Allowing newly naturalized citizens to hold passports from other countries might hinder development of civic duty and national loyalty among new Germans, says Westerwelle, noting that a young man wishing to avoid compulsory military service might try to opt out by claiming allegiance to another state.

“We don’t want a situation where some people have the right to pick out the raisins”--the best aspects of each citizenship, says Westerwelle, suggesting a five-year overlap would suffice.

Other proponents of easier citizenship, such as Berlin’s representative for foreigner issues, Barbara John, note that a balance has to be struck between extending the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship to new Germans while not limiting the rights of others.

The current law has been criticized for allowing unfettered immigration and social welfare for any foreigner who can trace his or her ancestry to a German, no matter how distant. More than 1.5 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most with little or no German language proficiency, have easily gained German citizenship over the past decade on the strength of German forebears who settled along the Volga River as long ago as 300 years. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Turks fluent in German whose families have lived here for two or three generations have been unable to qualify for passports.

“We consider language ability a must,” John says, “not because German is such a pretty language--it’s awful and it’s difficult--but because without the language they can’t get jobs and become self-sufficient.”