With Brexit set to take effect on March 29, some 18,000 Berlin Brits are weighing up their options.
It’s a cold winter day and I’m walking down the steps of Rathaus Pankow. Underneath my coat, my newborn son is fast asleep against my chest. And in my hand, the ink barely dried, is the piece of paper that I’m hoping will make our future here a little more secure: my new German citizenship. When I first moved to Berlin in 2011, I never imagined staying this long. Let alone getting married, having a kid and becoming a German. Back then, Brexit was just a Tory-party infight. Being a British national and an EU citizen made moving to Berlin straightforward: no need for visas, work permits or nervous waits at the Ausländerbehörde. The result of the June 2016 referendum and the subsequent triggering of Article 50 is set to change all that. Back in January, Berlin’s Landesamt für Bürger- und Ordnungsangelegenheiten (Berlin’s office for citizens’ affairs) launched an online registration page for those here on a British passport. The office explains that the 116,000 British citizens living in the country will “in the future require a residency title or some other proof of their right of residency in order to remain on German territory” – in all exit scenarios. In the case of a deal, Germany has already committed to granting Brits full EU treatment for the duration of a transition period through 2020. If it’s no deal, who knows, we might just lose our right to stay after March 29.
The website does offer this tantalising insurance: “Should the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union be stopped, we will immediately delete all data we have collected.”
Time to get real
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, many Brits have been forced to do some serious soul-searching to try to figure out the best way forward. This doesn’t just include the practical considerations – What will I need to do in order to stay? Will my pension be reciprocated? – but also more existential questions about life here, and identity in general: Am I British or European? How do I feel about my British citizenship – would I be prepared to give it up? Unsurprisingly, there’s been a huge rise in applications for German citizenship. In 2015 Berlin’s authorities awarded 45 British passport holders German nationality, jumping to 175 people in 2016 and trebling to 558 in 2017 – 7500 for the whole of Germany in 2017. And looking at friends and colleagues and the way Berlin authorities have been fast-tracking applications in recent months, I can only imagine figures will reach unheard-of highs for 2018 and 2019.
Personally, I spent a lot of time following the referendum, weighing up my options. Not having to choose, i.e. being able to keep my British passport, was a decisive factor – Germany typically doesn’t allow dual citizenship, unless you are an EU national. Finally, last summer, heavily pregnant and with my eight-year Berlin anniversary approaching, I took the first steps in applying for German citizenship in the hope of shoring up the future of our little family-to-be. And, as I found out later, it was high time I did: many British couples with children are now being informed that maternity pay will be paused after March 29 as German authorities don’t know what the status of British citizens will be after this date. My (American) husband was only granted paternity pay on the grounds of being married to an EU (British) citizen. I hadn’t considered that the terms of his visa and his rights here, too, would be put at risk by Britain leaving the EU. Fortunately, in our case, the letter from the Jugendamt arrived the same week as the confirmation of my German nationality, but I’m well aware that we’re among the lucky ones.
“Brexit has brought about so many questions and what-ifs,” says Rachel Marriott when I meet her at BrewDog in Mitte’s Ackerstraße. Here she organises a bi-weekly Stammtisch on behalf of the UK citizens’ rights organisation British in Germany. At their meetings, participants share their worries regarding their future status, which are to be raised with lawmakers through BiG’s lobbying. Marriott joined to channel her frustrations into useful work. A bilingual kindergarten teacher, she herself applied for German citizenship on the grounds of being a long-term resident here. This typically requires a minimum of eight years, a B1 level of German, a clean criminal record and the successful completion of a 33-question multiple choice citizenship test. The hitch in her case was that she’d moved to Germany in 2012, and therefore didn’t fulfil the minimum residency criteria.
But Marriott was able to use a provision of the law that brings the minimum residency time to six years, if you can prove long-term volunteer work and/or a minimum of B2 fluency in German. The application process was extremely stressful and emotional: “I spent most of 2016 and 2017 studying to pass the B2 test. But I had to wait until I’d been here six years (February 2018) to formally submit the papers,” she explains. Matters got complicated further when she realised that her moving from Potsdam to Berlin would mean further delays. “I’d struggled so much, that when I signed the final piece of paperwork, I just bawled!” she remembers. Finally, in the summer of 2018, Marriott received her much sought-after German ID card. “It was such a relief. I thought, ‘Now I can move on with the next stage of my life.’”
The Jewish-ancestry Plan B
In the case of Rabbi Walter Rothschild, receiving a German passport wasn’t so much about fulfilling foreign nationals integration criteria, as it was about proving his right to it – as the descendant of German Jews. His father was born in Hanover in 1923 and as a schoolboy was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. “In September 1939, really at the last minute, he got into England,” says the Yorkshire native when I meet him at his Schöneberg family home. In Berlin since 1988, he’s a jovial man with a sharp sense of humour, who, when not freelancing his services as a rabbi, performs his own brand of cabaret – his latest act features a “new nationalist anthem”, which starts with “God save our Brexit land…” to a familiar melody.
“Following the Brexit vote, I wasn’t sure what would happen. But one thing you learn from having a refugee background, is always to have a Plan B.” In this case it was to apply through Article 116 par. 2 of the constitution, which enables former German-Jewish citizens who lost their citizenship between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945, and their descendants, to have it restored. “All you have to do is prove who you are and who your ancestors were – and I was able to do that.”
On a more pragmatic level, Brexit is also impacting his future in a way he can’t control: “On March 20 I will turn 65. And then, on March 29, the value of my pension may go down substantially against the euro. So 40 years of saving to continue as a Briton in Europe is put at risk by these internal political party shenanigans.” The only thing he can do, he says, is “hang on and see what happens”.
Taking the Irish route
While obtaining a German passport is the most obvious way to ensure a safer future here, getting hold of another EU passport can also guarantee continued rights as an EU citizen. Applications for Irish passports have skyrocketed, reaching 200,000 in 2018. The prerequisite for automatic citizenship is that one parent was an Irish citizen at the time of birth. But it is also possible to apply for citizenship if one grandparent was born in Ireland.
For Jamie Gallen, a Brit from Hertfordshire living in Berlin for almost eight years, it’s a tough call: in the case of a Brexit deal, he could probably take advantage of the transition period offered by the German government and qualify for a German passport. But this all depends on a deal being agreed upon. With an Irish grandfather, the Gaelic route seems more straightforward – no language test, no Einbürgerungstest. Having paid €278, Gallen has the forms “almost ready to go”, just requiring the final signature to confirm his ID. Gallen and his Welsh-born wife moved here in May 2011. Their son, born last year, also has a British passport and Gallen is keen to secure his family’s future here as far as possible. “I’ve also registered us through the Berlin registration portal so that we’re on their list when they decide what’s going to happen after the 29th. The Irish passport is my back-up,” admits Gallen. “I’m not super excited about it. I was very close to my grandfather, and I’ve been out to Ireland a few times. But I mostly feel British. Having said that, I’ve been feeling angry towards the UK and don’t feel any embarrassment in taking the opportunity to become Irish if need be.”
This is a sentiment shared by many Brits here: the dismay, the anger, and the hard time coming to terms with that inexplicable decision made by their countrymen. For Rothschild it’s meant changing his view about his native country. “What’s happened to me now is that I’ve started talking about ‘them’ not ‘us’,” he says. “And that’s a major psychological change. I never thought that when I came here. I lived here, but I was British. Now I talk about ‘those people there’ and ‘their mistake’, and I find that’s happening more and more, without my thinking about it.”