Citizenship is a political institution that regulates who belongs in a country and who does not.  The politics of citizenship center on deciding this question, how should members of the political community be welcomed or limited, and by what criteria should these members be selected? Obviously, this question is critical to sovereign states, and has therefore been a hotly debated political issue in many nation-states across the world and across the years. The origins of citizenship and the policies that regulate it derive from centuries of national self-understanding as well as historical ties to countries via colonial legacies. Unlike the U.S., where there has been little change to citizenship laws since the 14th amendment to the constitution, European countries like France and Germany have made significant changes to their policies in the last 20 years, France has tried to place more restrictions on birthright citizenship while Germany has made it easier for children born in Germany to gain birthright citizenship. The UK has had to deal with issues of citizenship for people from former colonies and has shifted policy away from a broad commonwealth citizenship.

United Kingdom

The goal of hanging onto the relationships with Commonwealth countries for political and foreign policy ends, delayed the development of British citizenship policy. As Rieko Karatani argues, “Previous works on post-war immigration policy in Britain have mainly focused on the way in which it became racially discriminatory. They have not asked why British governments delayed until 1981 before creating the status of British citizenship and have remained silent about the fact that the status of British citizenship, unlike the citizenship of other Western democratic countries, is still not defined by nationhood” (Karatani 2003, 106).  Karatani emphasizes the point that it was the “global institution,” i.e., British Empire followed by the Commonwealth, which was the focal point for British citizenship policy and not only the domestic impact of immigration that led to the development of British citizenship in 1981.

The British Nationality Act (BNA) of 1981 finally created a category of ‘British Citizenship,’ although it also expanded it to include the ‘British Dependent Territories Citizenship’ (BDTC) and ‘British Overseas Citizenship’ (BOC). Asifa Maaria Hussain (2001) argues that the act provides the strongest proof that citizenship and immigration are highly linked in Britain. The point of the act was essentially to restrict immigration by defining “nationality narrowly” (26). The act superseded the liberal and Commonwealth British Nationality Act of 1948 with the three categories of which the last, BOC, was about as useful to its holders in the Commonwealth for entry into the United Kingdom as a greeting card from Hyde Park. The second category, BDTC, entrenched the concept of patriality hinted at by the 1968 Immigration Act and entrenched by the 1971 Immigration Act.

The 1981 BNA continues to define the parameters of citizenship in Britain today. British citizenship remains a complicated concept, given the relationship between the components of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth. As in France, Britain has birthright citizenship (jus soli), but unlike the United States, persons born to parents in the country illegally are not automatically granted citizenship.


In the mid-1980s, according to Rogers Brubaker, the principle of jus soli came under considerable attack from the Far Right. In part as a response to this attack the right-wing RPR governments of Edouard Balladur and Aain Juppe made it mandatory that French born persons between 16 and 21 make a special request known as the demonstration of the will (manifestation de la volonte). The new socialist government of Lionel Jospin rescinded this law in September 1st, 1998. Therefore, unlike the pure jus soli principle of the United States, the French place great emphasis on socialization. One must become socialized, a Jacobin principle, through education, in order to become French. Schools are therefore an integral part of becoming French.

A law of November 2003 further introduced restrictive conditions to obtaining French nationality for the foreign spouses of French citizens. The minimum length of marriage before one could apply for French citizenship was extended from one to two years, plus the married couple had to prove that they were living together and that they had a good knowledge of the French language. Nonetheless, as the OECD report on global migration illustrates, “the number of foreigners obtaining French nationality has significantly increased in the last two years. This is mainly due to the implementation since January 2003 of the Action Plan for the simplification and acceleration of the process to obtain French nationality. As a consequence, the average time taken to examine an application has been reduced to one month” (OECD 2006, 98).


German law has historically made it very difficult for guest workers as well as the children of guest workers to obtain German citizenship.  Over the past twenty-five years, political elites have attempted to modify these rules. In 1990, the conservative Kohl government reformed Germany’s naturalization law after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with reunification in mind.  As a result, after 15 years of residence, non-ethnic Germans could naturalize and acquire German citizenship. This reform forbade dual citizenship, an element of the policy that was strictly enforced. German law has historically made it very difficult for guest workers as well as the children of guest workers to obtain German citizenship.  Over the past twenty-five years, political elites have attempted to modify these rules. In 1999, the naturalization law was amended to accord children born in Germany dual citizenship until the age of twenty-three, at which time they must choose one nationality. In order to qualify, the child must have at least one parent who has resided in Germany for at least eight years.

A major shift in policy occurred with the election of the SPD/Green government in 1998.  Gerhard Schroeder, the new chancellor, pledged to move away from the former government’s “not a country of immigration” stance.  A change in the citizenship law was proposed in October 1998 and became law on January 1, 2000. The new naturalization law introduced a limited form of jus soli citizenship and reduced the requisite length of legal residency from fifteen to eight years.  Children born in Germany to parents who had in the country for eight or more years automatically obtained conditional German citizenship, which could be held alongside citizenship in another country.  However, between the ages of 18 and 23, these individuals must choose their citizenship. By failing to declare their German citizenship by age 23, they automatically lose it. In addition, children under the age of ten could, upon their parents’ application, were eligible for German citizenship so long as their parents satisfied the legal requirements and applied before December of 2000. A number of additional requirements and responsibilities accompanied these reforms.  These reforms acknowledged that Germany is a country of immigration and that foreigners may join the political community.


What the move away from strict jus sanguinis model in Germany characterizes is the limits of the culturalist approach since national culture changes relatively slowly and so offers an insufficient explanation of sudden policy change. As one studies the modern development in migration/citizenship policy one realizes that there are now considerable departures from the original French (assimilationist) or German (disimilationist) models and that all three case studies in this book in fact seem to be converging on a similar model in which citizenship offers some avenue for naturalization but is restrictive in the immigration policy other than for skilled migrants.

Nonetheless, as Brubaker illustrates in the late 19th Century France and early 20th Century Germany, when citizenship debates did crop up the cultural/ideological frameworks available to policy makers set the available options for reform. France opted for jus soli as a way to resolve resentment against migrants not because it was deemed the best possible option, but because it was first deemed as an option to begin with and second because it fit the country’s assimilationist and statist conception of itself. In Germany, jus soli did not even come up for debate when the 1913 citizenship law was promulgated.

As these cases show, citizenship policy can change over time, along with conceptions of who should be a member of a country. Even in the U.S., it took the 14th amendment to the constitution to get to full citizenship for previously enslaved African Americans. Whether those decisions should be revisited is a political question that should be done with a great deal of care and thought as to the consequences.