The Debate About Dual Citizenship in Germany

By Jonas Reichert

To which country does one belong? And how many? The concept of dual citizenship, a person holding citizenship of multiple states, does not agree with the idea that citizenship means loyalty and obligation to a country. Especially if one has never been to the country, whose citizenship one holds. It also questions the idea of nation-states, which receive legitimacy not only by controlling a certain area but also by representing a culturally homogenous group of people. For Germany, being a nation-state with large cultural minorities, this has been up for discussion for a long time. The debate, mainly concerning its Muslim minority, dragged on for years and led to multiple changes of law and opened the debate for more extreme views towards foreigners.

The debate about dual citizenship features typically two kinds of arguments. The first is technical. Being a citizen of two states could lead to colliding interest when it comes to military service, taxation, diplomatic protection and law. Two citizenships could give rise to two competing claims for military service, as both states might want its citizens to serve in their armed forces. This is however becoming less relevant with the professionalisation of the military. Therefore many states are no longer requiring its citizens to serve. Taxation based on citizenship is also not very common with only the US and Eritrea using citizenship-based taxation. Diplomatic protection is a bit more difficult, especially if the interests of the states are colliding. Two countries can have concurring intentions about the offering, or revoking, diplomatic protection, especially if politically important figures are involved. This was mitigated by a 1955 decision of the International Court of Justice requiring a genuine link to the state offering protection. Competing applications of law can especially arise in inheritance and family law. These laws often differ significantly between countries and can prefer different claimants and claimants might want to choose different countries to settle the case. This is typically solved by applying the laws of the country of habitual residence.

The second kind of arguments is socio-political. As suffrage is often connected to citizenship, holders of two citizenship can often vote in elections in both countries. Democracies in most countries are based on the principle that every person has the same amount of political power. Being able to participate in two elections might be seen as an unfair advantage. It is also unclear if they will vote in the best interest of the country, or factor in the interest of their secondary country. But even as it might provide them slightly more influence, elections are typically about national or local affairs and therefore independent of each other. Furthermore, it can be difficult to cast votes in the second election, as many countries have not established postal vote systems. But might dual citizenship impede integration? It seems tempting to believe that holders of dual citizenship are less likely to integrate into society as they do not fully identify with the country. The countries can have quite different cultures, which often requires a decision about which cultural norms are followed. The full adoption of the culture of the country of residence is complicated. But identity is not a zero-sum game and a person can identify fully with a country without giving up any connection to another one. It seems unclear why citizenship is the important part as it just acknowledges the fact of compound identities. Furthermore, the option of dual citizenship offers incentives to naturalization as it cuts out the decision between the two countries. The possibility to take part in the democratic process can actually enhance integration.

Germany has seen multiple debates about dual citizenship in recent years, which featured many of the previous arguments. Often these seem to have been only a proxy debate for the real motivation, the fear of aliens. However, up until recently arguments based on this fear around migration policies were not accepted as part of the discourse. The debate provided a vent to express this fear in supposedly technical arguments. The debate subsided, when the rise of the far-right, xenophobic outlet Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”) made xenophobic ideas more part of the dabate. The arguments are also concerning mainly a stereotype of foreigners, which do not match most. Finally, nationalistic ideas of a homogenous Volk (“people”) do not agree with the idea of someone belonging to two states. The debate seems not to have moved on because a solution has been found, but as it was a proxy debate about nationalistic ideas, and interest shifted as these ideas were more openly expressed after the refugee influx in 2015.

Germany has tight rules on dual citizenship compared to other countries, but there are still some ways to obtain dual citizenship in Germany. One is by birth. This applies for children of parents with two different nationalities, if both states apply ius sanguinis (“right of blood’’). It also applies for children of foreign parents born in Germany, as Germany started to apply ius soli (“right of soil”) in 2000. Until 2014 they had to decide for one passport once they turned 23. Since then they have to decide only if they did not grow up in Germany. It also applies for children of German parents born in a country, which applies ius soli. Obtaining dual citizenship by naturalization is more difficult. It is only possible for citizens of EU member states and Switzerland after living in Germany for at least eight years. There are also exceptions for recognised refugees and citizens of states, which do not allow for giving up citizenship.

The number of dual citizens in Germany is unknown but was estimated between two and four million in 2016. The Turkish minority comprises only around twelve percent of that. Most are Spätaussiedler (‘late repatriates’), immigrants of German origin, mainly from former German territories in the east, which are rarely mentioned in the debate. The remaining are migrant workers, mainly from Italy, which were naturalized, and offspring of German parents born in the US.

The debate about dual citizenship, being used as a proxy debate about who is a part of Germany, offers an insight into the struggle about national identities and whether citizenship is only a legal affiliation or also a cultural one. It touches the core of what it means to be a citizen and how we want to define us as a nation. Being talked up as an ideological question, the debate is unlikely to yield results.

By Jonas Reichert

Cover art: Maria Ekstrand

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