Germany plans to scrap rules forcing young people with immigrant parents to choose between a German passport and their parents’ citizenship, a step that reflects the country’s shifting attitudes toward national identity after decades of immigration.
The deal “sends a signal that [immigrants] are welcome here. It’s a clear signal that we want these young people and they’re part of our society,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference Wednesday.
Under the plan, people from migrant backgrounds who were born in Germany will for the first time be able to apply for dual citizenship, a development that is most significant for the country’s sizable Turkish population, although it will uphold an existing ban for later arrivals who choose to become German citizens.
The move is a compromise on the part of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian Christian Social Union sister party, which have long opposed dual nationality over fears it could lead to split loyalties.
However, the left-of-center Social Democrats had pushed the issue hard in coalition talks: Party leader Sigmar Gabriel said earlier this month there would be no deal without dual nationality, and the party has argued that forcing young people to choose their nationality leads to an identity conflict.
Wednesday’s compromise largely addresses the descendents “guest workers” that came to West Germany during its postwar economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s. This year alone, some 4,500 young people will now be absolved of having to pick citizenship—a number that would have risen to about 45,000 young people by 2018.
“If we force people to decide then we push them into a conflict of loyalties that can’t be repaired,” said Aygül Özkan, a former integration minister for Lower Saxony and a CDU negotiator in the coalition talks.
Non-nationals account for nearly 8% of Germany’s population of 80 million. While the number pales next to the roughly 13% foreign-born populations in the U.S. and U.K., multiculturalism has established more slowly in most European countries, and many—including Germany—have traditionally given favored citizenship rights by blood lines rather than on place of birth or skills.
The Social Democrats tried to introduce dual citizenship while in power in 1999, under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s center-left coalition with the Greens, but scrapped the idea following conservative pressure and a national petition that garnered more than one million signatures.
Instead, the government compromised on the “option model.” As of 2000, anyone born in the country from 1990 got automatic citizenship until the age of 23, when the children of foreign nationals had to choose either German citizenship or that of their parents. Since then, around 98% opted for a German passport.
“[Conservatives have] begun to understand that the option model send a very anti-integration signal, a fatal indication that ‘you can be made a foreigner again’,” said Aydan Özoðuz, lead negotiator for the Social Democrats on coalition talks on integration.
There are nearly 6.2 million foreigners living in Germany, about three million of whom are of Turkish origin. While the new law will allow German-born descendants to hold dual nationality, it won’t change the norm that requires anyone who moves here and takes German citizenship to give up his or her previous passport.
Numerous exceptions continue to exist, however, which was part of the controversy over Germany’s ban on dual nationality until now. About half of Germany’s naturalizations are accepted with dual citizenship. Ethnic Germans from former German territories, known as “late repatriates,” can keep their previous citizenship, along with citizens of European Union member states, children with at least one German parent, and citizens of countries that forbid denaturalization such as Iran, Morocco and Syria.
“The broad population and the legal system identify Germany as an ethnic nation state, as does Austria, which is different from a republic like France or like the U.K.,” said Yasemin Karakaþoðlu, an intercultural affairs expert at Bremen University.
Laws on blood-based citizenship dating from the imperial Kaiser era remained in place until 2000, unchanged after National Socialism and World War II.
Traditionally, being German has been tied to a particular ethnicity, and integration has proceeded slowly. In 2010, Angela Merkel called multiculturalism in Germany a “total failure.”
“For a while, we kidded ourselves into believing that [guest workers] wouldn’t stay and would leave. Naturally, the notion that we would become ‘multikulti,’ that we would live next to one another and be happy about one another, failed,” Ms. Merkel said at the time.
The next government, which will see Ms. Merkel tie up with the center-left SPD rather than her last coalition partner, the center-right Free Democrats, has put integration more squarely on the agenda. It wrote in its coalition agreement Wednesday that “Germany is a cosmopolitan country. We view immigration as an opportunity, without overlooking the challenges associated with it.”
The initial decision to legalize dual citizenship for ethnic minorities born in the country is a step forward on Germany’s occasionally rocky path toward multiculturalism, burdened by the country’s history.
“After World War II, all the foreigners were gone, they were exiled or murdered, and society was very homogenous—suddenly guest workers and displaced persons came into this [society] and no one really thought about how to view each other, or that you have to work at it,” said Mr. Özoðuz.
Cultural attitudes are changing however, observers say.
“I feel German, I was born and grew up here,” said Züleyha Tekin, the 31-year-old daughter of Turkish immigrants, shopping with her baby in a Berlin mall. “Why shouldn’t there be dual citizenship? It’s a right for everyone to choose,” Ms. Tekin said.
Separately, however, three female teenagers on the subway all said they feel Turkish despite being raised in Berlin. “It’s because of my religion,” said Ebru, aged 16, who wore a head scarf and declined to give her last name.
While integration in Germany may be slow, Sezen Tatlici, the founder of multicultural association Typisch Deutsch, said cultural attitudes toward “German-ness” are shifting in the media, politics and the educational system.
“Seeing a Turkish person on Tatort [a popular crime-scene investigation TV show] who is a police officer and not a drug-dealer or criminal—that’s a fundamental change in culture, this is what’s changing compared to 2000,” Ms. Tatlici said.