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Europe: Analysis From Washington -- Redefining The Nation State

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Plans by Germany's new governing coalition to modify that country's naturalization laws to make it easier for immigrants there to apply for citizenship seem certain to have an effect on such legislation in other countries as well.

Last Wednesday, the Social Democrats and their Green allies announced plans to scrap the country's current legislation in this area which defines Germany as the land of the Germans and introduce new laws that will make it as a land of immigration as well.

Specifically, the coalition plans to eliminate most of the provisions of the 1949 statute, itself based on a 1913 law, that allowed ethnic Germans who migrated to Germany to become German citizens quickly but denied rapid naturalization to all others.

As a result, most of the nearly seven million immigrants who now live in Germany have found it extremely difficult to obtain German citizenship.

But now that appears likely to change. Under the terms of the proposed legislation, anyone whose family has been in Germany for three generations will have the chance to become a German citizen automatically, as will any child born in Germany who has at least one parent who has lived in Germany since the age of 14.

Other immigrants would be able to apply for German citizenship after eight years of residence rather than after 15 as now, and they would be allowed to hold dual citizenship instead of being forced to give up their previous national allegiance altogether.

Such changes would allow approximately 43 percent of the country's immigrants -- some three million people in all -- to apply for German citizenship immediately.

Because these changes are so radical, they are already generating a backlash among some Germans who see this proposed law as threatening their understanding of what Germany is.

But as significant as the impact of the new law on Germany is likely to be, its impact elsewhere -- both practically and conceptually -- may be even greater.

On the one hand, it brings Germany closer to the definition of citizenship and nationhood that exists in many other European countries and thus may make it easier for Germany to integrate itself into pan-European institutions.

But on the other, it eliminates one of the major arguments that some leaders in Eastern Europe and elsewhere have made against inclusive citizenship legislation.

When Western governments have urged that countries there (in eastern Europe) adopt citizenship laws embracing everyone living on their territory, many in these countries have countered with the German example up to now.

Not only will they not be able to make that argument, but the new German government, having redefined its own citizenship and naturalization laws, also appears likely to press others to follow its lead, something the German government had not done in the past. To the extent that happens, many other states may find themselves under pressure to shift to a more multicultural approach.

And that shift in the orientation of German policy both reflects and is likely to power a redefinition of just what a nation state is.

Two centuries ago, German theorists introduced the conceptual framework of the modern nation state by arguing that states should correspond to national communities. And that framework has both given rise to a number of new states on the basis of claims of national self-determination and defined how many nation states view themselves and the world about them.

Now, at a time of ever increasing migration and hence ethnic intermixing, Germany, like many other countries, is redefining itself as a multicultural society. And in so doing, it is effectively repealing much from its own past on which the German and other states now rest.

That opens the door to a very different future than many had expected, one in which the relationship between ethnicity and the state are likely to change in ways that no one can now predict.