Passport to the EU: the transnational side-effects of nationality laws in the European Union

7 April 2006

Françoise Pissart, Director of the King Baudouin Foundation, opened the Dialogue by noting that although the EU has no direct competence in the specific field of nationality laws, it can play a role in promoting exchange of experience and best practices between Member States. However, the debate on nationality acquisition, dual nationality and civic citizenship has not yet been broached thoroughly at the European level.

Giovanna Zincone, President of FIERI, reiterated that competence for nationality laws lies with the Member States, but pointed out that decisions concerning nationality in one country have considerable side-effects for other EU and non-EU countries.

A number of countries still have policies allowing co-ethnics - descendents of nationals who have either emigrated, or been excluded following a revision of borders - to retain or regain citizenship of that country. This can also include nationals of former colonies or countries considered “culturally similar”.

The most striking aspect of some these policies is that beneficiaries may access citizenship without ever having lived in the ‘home’ country, or having any linguistic competence. This is in direct contrast to the increasingly stringent requirements that other third-country nationals already resident in the EU have to meet in order to acquire citizenship.

Dr Zincone questioned whether such ancestral preferences were advisable where a few links have been maintained between the country of origin and the co-ethnic descendent. The research to date also questions the motives of those applying for citizenship through these policies. There is some evidence that these ‘nationals’ do so in order to take advantage of freedom of movement within the EU and more relaxed visa regimes to countries such as the US and Canada.

Dr Zincone concluded by recommending that the most extreme preferential policies - such as offering voting rights to people who have never lived in the country - should be moderated, not least because such rules can further marginalise the already resident immigrant population.

Case studies

Researchers from several European countries presented preliminary data on the impact that preferential treatment for descendents of EU emigrants has had on migration to Europe.

José Carlos Marques and Pedro Gois, from the University of Coimbra, described the situation in Portugal, where clear preference has been given to nationals of former colonies (in particular, Brazil) during the regularisation processes of the past two decades.

Unlike in Spain, this process offers access to citizenship in the longer term. However, the acquisition of Portuguese nationality cannot be taken as a sign of full integration into Portuguese society, as interviews with a number of dual-nationals in the country suggested many intend to move on to another EU Member State.

Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, from the University of Kent, described the situation in Germany. She said that between 1950 and 2005, a total of 4.5 million ethnic Germans (Ausslieder) took advantage of preferential nationality laws offering them citizenship.

This policy has, however, always been limited to the former Soviet Union and central and eastern Europe, and does not extend to Western Europe and North America. As Germany was unified only comparatively recently, ethno-cultural bonds have historically been stronger than political ones.

However, the laws for non-Ausslieder migrants are now being liberalised, with a reduction in the preferential treatment given to ethnic Germans as it becomes increasingly clear that many Ausslieder are not in fact ‘German’. For example, there are 350,000 German nationals in Poland who are essentially Polish people with German citizenship.

Giovanna Zincone said that in Italy, it is virtually impossible for descendants of Italian emigrants to lose their rights to citizenship. A recent estimate calculated that there are roughly 60 million people of Italian ancestry living across the world, about half of whom are capable of meeting the loose requirements of Italian nationality law. More than half a million of these took up this opportunity between 1998 and 2004 alone. Meanwhile, it is substantially more difficult for immigrants in Italy to acquire citizenship.

The data shows that most new passports are issued to Brazilians and Argentines (following economic crises in those countries) and there are signs that these new nationals are not then moving to Italy, but rather using their EU passports to enter Spain, Portugal and even the US. As EU citizens, these migrants can bypass regulations in the receiving countries governing immigrant inflows, labour market and the welfare system.

Trends in naturalisation laws

Rainer Bauböck, Senior Researcher at the Institute for European Integration Research (EIF), outlined the trends in naturalisation laws for migrants being pursued by European countries.

A first group, including countries such as Belgium, Sweden and Luxembourg, are liberalising their policies; a second, including Italy, Greece and Spain, are persisting with restrictive practices; while a third, including France, Austria and the Netherlands, are reversing previously liberal policies, imposing additional requirements on migrants such as language and knowledge tests. Access to citizenship for immigrants and their descendents is, however, a crucial condition for integration.

Citizenship is becoming increasingly ‘interactive’, with dual nationality more commonplace, and affecting all Member States. Some of the effects relate to mobility, but others are more political. For example, granting voting rights to a large population of expatriates can transform the political landscape in the home country.

Dr Bauböck argued that citizenship based on ‘ius sanguinis’ (law of the blood) needs to be more limited, and territorial residence should become the main basis for acquiring it in order to make it meaningful. The EU needs to create a coherent set of guidelines for the acquisition and loss of nationality both within and beyond the territory of its Member States.

Bernhard Perchinig, Research Fellow at the EIF, pointed to the lack of coordination between nationality legislation in each Member State and freedom of movement in the EU. There is, however, clear interaction between the status of third-country nationals and access to EU citizenship.

The value of naturalisation in another Member State has been reduced for those already holding EU citizenship, but the incentives have been increased for third-country nationals. This results from both the rights accorded by EU citizenship and the limited mobility rights currently enjoyed by third-country nationals in Europe, even after the introduction of the EU’s long-term residence directive.

Wrapping up the debate, EPC Policy Analyst Elizabeth Collett briefly outlined the situation in Latvia. Here, some 30% of the population are excluded from automatic citizenship, even though many of them were born in Latvia, as they are ethnic Russians. This is now having an impact on the EU, as ethnic-Russian Latvians working in the Union are unsure whether they have EU citizenship rights.

Finally, she warned that as such side-effects become clearer to Member States, they are likely to pursue harmonisation of nationality policies out of a fear of an influx of people from the most generous Member State, rather than an altruistic belief that such convergence is good for European migration as a whole. Such harmonisation is unlikely to consider the rights of those most deeply affected - the migrants themselves.