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Dual citizenship
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's debate on dual citizenship

Sertan Sanderson
August 24, 2016

Germany's debate on dual citizenship seems to be at odds with its inclusive approach to refugees - and its economic success story. Turks, in particular, feel ostracized when German officials question their loyalty.


Earlier this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she and her government expect a "high level of loyalty" to be displayed by Germany's largest immigrant community: the Turkish diaspora. Her divisive remarks came after mass rallies were held in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following last month's thwarted coup.

Recent security threats across the country have also prompted a re-evaluation of immigration strategy, putting the chancellor in the uncomfortable position of having to balance her welcoming approach toward refugees with the realities of Germany's history of lacking long-term plans to integrate new residents.

Chancellor Angela Merkel
Merkel questioned some Turks' loyalty after tens of thousands rallied in support of ErdoganImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere also made remarks that seemed to challenge the allegiance of dual nationals, saying that allowing people to hold multiple citizenships was not a desirable long-term goal for the government.

The chairman of Germany's TGD Turkish community association, which primarily functions as a legal network, said he welcomed the chancellor's initiative as a way to advance the loyalty discussion, but he also criticized the idea that a series of unconnected events could call into question the allegiance of millions of people who live in Germany.

"It can't be that a debate on loyalty is sparked purely on the basis of ethnic Turks' participating at a rally in Cologne," Gökay Sofuoglu told DW, adding that "milestones of social integration and participation" were suddenly being questioned - including dual citizenship.

"We have played a major role in rebuilding this country," Sofuoglu said, referring to post-World War II reconstruction. "It is sad that the accomplishments of that first generation haven't been honored or even acknowledged but are rather repeatedly being questioned. All these discussions only go to prove this country's ingratitude and its total failure at its immigration policy."

'Mistakes were made'

Though having multiple nationalities is regarded as worldly and debonair in many cultures, Germany's attitude is more conflicted. The subject of dual citizenship can touch a nerve as Germany tries to nail down an identity in a multicultural age; the country has become the second most popular destination for immigration after the United States, according to UN figures.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere
De Maiziere said facilitating dual citizenship was not in the long-term interest of the governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Kappeler

"Germany now has 55 years of experience of dealing with migrants," Sofuoglu said. "We all know what mistakes were made in the past. It would be beneficial if - rather than continuing to alienate migrants and questioning their loyalties - we helped open doors and create opportunities for these people arriving in Germany now."

The response to terror threats is a factor in the dual nationality debate, as is the potential reintroduction of compulsory military conscription. German law automatically dictates the loss of citizenship in most instances if a national joins another nation's military, yet the armed forces are currently considering allowing citizens of other EU states to join.

Infografik doppelte Staatsbürgerschaft Europa ENG

A two-tiered society

The TGD's Sofuoglu argues that threatening to revoke dual citizenship and forcing people from ethnic minorities to choose creates "second-class German nationals" who have to live in constant fear of having their privileges taken away.

Gökay Sofuoglu
Sofuoglu, a dual national, said Germany's restrictive policy amounts to ingratitudeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Weissbrod

"No one would come up with the idea of revoking the citizenship of a native German without a migrant background who acts in an undesirable way," Sofuoglu said. "So why do other people who were also born and raised here have to abide by a different set of standards simply because they have their roots abroad? ... Because some of them chose to partake in a rally in favor of the Turkish president?"

"If loyalty to the state is such a problem, what about those right extremists protesting against Merkel and insinuating that she should be executed for allowing refugees to come to Germany?" Sofuoglu said. "Is that what they call loyalty?"

Economic fallout

Nearly 20 percent of Germany's population has a migrant background - defined as being born a noncitizen or having a recent ancestor who was - according to the Federal Statistical Office.

Taking Turkish citizens living in Germany into account as well as German citizens with at least one Turkish citizen parent, the number of people potentially affected by the current political discourse could be as high as 4 million - or roughly 5 percent of the population, according to numbers collated by David Audretsch, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington. Audretsch, an economist, examined the impact that "migrant" communities have had in Germany for the book "The Seven Secrets of Germany," which he wrote with Erik E. Lehmann.

David B. Audretsch
Audretsch said Germany had enjoyed decades of economic benefits from immigrationImage: Indiana University Bloomington/School of Public and Environmental Affairs

"Germany has benefited from this influx of foreigners since the early 1960s," Audretsch told DW. "It has become the envy of the EU if not the rest of the world. Germany has shifted away from its image a century ago of 'the sick man of Europe' because of its Turkish population - not despite it."

"Not only does this recent change in attitude amount to ingratitude to generations of foreigners that have rebuilt Germany, but in economics terms, this is a barrier to entry for new human capital wanting to come to Germany," Audretsch said. "It is a step backward that could really hurt Germany."

Ever-changing immigration laws

The German government ironed out the conditions under which dual citizenship can be attained in a series of legislative measures since 2000. Audretsch said a successively liberal approach toward immigration since then had contributed in a large part to changing the way that Germany is perceived.

"In some ways, Germany is moving toward the same standard of citizenship consistent with most countries," Audretsch said. "Germany learned that it's good business to have a more inclusive policy on immigration."

Under the current law, the majority of non-EU adult migrants will still be required to make up their minds about whether they want to keep their native nationalities or forfeit them in order to become citizens when they qualify.

Their descendants could have dual nationality into adulthood under certain circumstances if they spend significant lengths of time in Germany attending school. While this may allow more people to retain their dual citizenships in the long run, representative numbers are yet to be seen as this amendment to German nationality law was only passed at the end of 2014. It is precisely this legal loophole that conservative politicians would like to see revoked.

The TGD's Sofuoglu said that Germany would create a generation with conflicting loyalties if it backtracked on the current law.

"In the German language, people speak of a 'fatherland,'" Sofuoglu said. "But in Turkish, the term that is used is 'motherland.' Imagine what it must be like to be torn between the two - to have to choose between a mother and a father. That's how many Turks are made to feel, increasingly so in the current climate."

Audretsch said taking steps to limit citizenship choices for migrants and their descendants would amount to an economic withdrawal - "the Brexit of Germany."

"Germany struggles to live with the heterogeneity created by decades of immigration despite its economic benefits," Audretsch said. "But the capacity of Germany to live with its tradition and also embrace the opportunities of the modern world has been the backbone of its success story. Places that harbor diversity always do better. A step backward from that position would come at a high cost."

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