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As Brexit vote looms, Brits scramble for passports

Naomi Conrad, Berlin May 24, 2016

With British voters heading to the polls in June to decide whether to remain in the European Union, some of their compatriots in Germany are hedging their bets - and applying for citizenship. Naomi Conrad reports.

A pro-Brexit supporter in Manchester, April 2016 (foto: DW/J. Macfarlane)
Image: DW/J. Macfarlane

When, some six weeks ago, Natalia Dannenberg was granted German citizenship, she and her husband opened a bottle of wine over dinner to celebrate what, she says, is "really a kind of security blanket": Applying for a German passport hadn't really been a priority before, the eloquent 35-year-old who weighs her words carefully, told DW. She had always thought she would get round to it at some point in the future.

But, she explained on a crackling phone line from Greece this week where she was spending a short holiday with her husband and baby daughter, "I would have probably waited a few years" - if the fear of a Brexit hadn't suddenly loomed on the horizon.

Voters in Britain and expats who fulfill the criteria are heading to the polls on June 23 to decide whether they want their country to remain in the European Union - or exit, a first-time in the history of the EU. The outcome of the controversial referendum, which is pitting a pro-EU against an almost equally big exit camp in an increasingly vitriolic debate would, most commentators agree, have a far-reaching impact on the UK and probably the EU as a whole.

Not to mention expats, like Dannenberg, a social media manager at the Paralympics Committee in Bonn, who speaks fluent German and moved to this small, tranquil former capital of West Germany, with her German husband six years ago.

#HugaBrit: Can love keep Brits in the EU?

Definite increase in requests for naturalization

While she doesn't really think Germany would be so "brutal to British people as to throw them out overnight", she didn't want to have to find out what would happen to her residency should Britain leave the common market which allows for EU citizens to live and work in any member state.

Others Brits, too, are worried: While a spokesman for the German interior ministry was unable to confirm whether there was indeed an increase in British naturalizations in Germany linked to the Brexit, anecdotal evidence seems to point in that direction: A city council employee in Bonn told DW that there was “definitely” an increase in requests for naturalization.

"Normally, about two or three Brits are granted German citizenship each year", he said. "But this year we've already naturalized seven."

He's convinced that the figure is set to increase, judging by the amount of calls he's been getting from worried British expats in the last couple of months. "When there was a debate about a Greek exit, a few Greeks called, but not half as many as the Brits now: They're all scared they'll lose their EU privileges."

He chuckled: "I try to reassure them that, even if Britain votes for a Brexit, it's unlikely to happen overnight." Rather, he thinks, it would take years to disentangle the UK from the EU. "So there's really no need to worry."

British expats, he is convinced, won't suddenly face deportation.

Several other Brits living in Germany that DW talked to said they would "love to" apply for citizenship if they could: But the rules are strict, including a minimum residency of eight years - unless the applicant is married to a German partner - and a citizenship test, designed to test the applicant's knowledge of German culture, politics and history.

It's a process that can drag on for months, according to officials. In the end, Dannenberg says, her German citizenship "doesn't really make a difference to my day-to-day life." But, she says, it gives her a feeling of belonging to a country that she's proud of: A country that's shown leadership in the refugee crisis and that's shown itself to be inclusive and welcoming - not like the prevailing atmosphere in the UK right now, she says.

'Europe should be celebrated - not feared'

"I don't like the politics of Brexit and the nationalism and intolerance that goes with it." In the UK, she feels, the European Union is all too-often used as a scapegoat for issues like unemployment or a funding crisis in the NSH.

"To be honest, I feel embarrassed about those attitudes and I feel a lot more comfortable with the German ideal of Europe, a Europe that's open and inclusive."

Some of her close relatives, she admits, are very anti-European and she knows that several of them are going to vote for the Brexit. And so, to avoid arguments, Dannenberg has given up talking to them about it.

She sighed: "I find it surprising that they don't see the benefits of Europe, of being able to move freely, move to wherever you want, all the benefits that I have as a European citizen living in Germany, they don't seem to see that."

Without British membership in the EU, “I wouldn't be where I am today, if it hadn't been so easy, if I had needed a visa, who knows where I would be now.”

And that Europe, the Europe that allowed for her to move to Germany and settle down, should be something that “shouldn't be feared, it should be celebrated!”