New Belgian Nationality Law: still something to celebrate?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

On 19 July, a proposed new Belgian Nationality law passed the Belgian Parliament’s Justice Committee with a large majority. Naturalisation should be “migration-neutral,” meaning that applicants should be living in Belgium as long-term residents. Also, applicants should already be linguistically, socially, and economically integrated before they apply.On the eve of Belgian’s National Day, is this new proposal something to celebrate? Or will it undermine Belgium’s liberal naturalisation policy and its positive effects on integration? 

Reforming the reform: Welcome to Belgium!

In Belgium–as in other European countries–most of its non-EU residents want to become citizens, according to the Immigrant Citizens Survey (ICS). Belgium’s 2000 citizenship reform saw citizenship as a tool for integration and made the conditions simpler, free, and shorter. Since 2000, immigrants have naturalised more often and more quickly than before. Belgium is one of the EU countries with the highest naturalisation rates–an indicator of integration agreed by the EU. Most people born outside the EU have become Belgian citizens after living here for 10 or 20 years.

According to MIPEX, the 2000 reform was likely to be ‘slightly favourable’ for integration, scoring 69/100. Indeed, the OECD and Antwerp University have concluded that naturalisation has a positive impact on integration in the Belgian labour market. Most non-EU naturalised Belgians that ICS interviewed in Antwerp, Brussels, and Liege said that becoming Belgian helped them feel more settled and get better jobs, better educated, and more locally involved.

Notwithstanding these achievements, Belgium only obtained a 69% on MIPEX Access to Nationality because the naturalisation procedure was found to be discretionary, changeable, and inefficient. Belgium’s Naturalisation Committee retains greater discretion on many indicators than decision-makers in most European countries, even Denmark and Switzerland, the two MIPEX countries where parliaments are still required for naturalisation.

The discretion of the authorities caused problems for about one in four applicants in this naturalisation procedure, much more than in the 7-year-facilitated-procedure, according to ICS data. Forthcoming European research suggests that this procedure is a rather unfavourable way to implement naturalisation: limited promotion among the public, wide discretion for parliamentarians, and rather bureaucratic for applicants. Today, the Committee has a backlog of over 40,000 persons!

Restricting naturalisation: a long time in coming

Since 2000, the Rainbow Coalition behind the reform  has been replaced by parties calling it the “SnelBelgwet”—or “Quick Belgian Law.” In 2007, the government agreed to restrict access to nationality and outlined the key changes, before it finally fell in 2010. Without a government for a record-breaking 541 days, restricting family reunion and naturalisation became the subject of much politicking among parliamentarians from the two major forces on the right — the Reformist Movement, a Francophone centre-right liberal party, and the New Flemish Alliance, the Flemish nationalist and populist party. For example, the Naturalisation Committee members passed their own new guidelines that reinstituted language and integration checks by the police

The current government agreed to again reform naturalisation (see background below) under the mantra of “continuous residence and integration should lead to the acqusition of nationality and not the reverse”. Firstly, naturalisation should be “migration-neutral,” meaning that applicants should be living in Belgium and be long-term residents (5-year residence permit). Secondly, applicants should already be linguistically, socially, and economically integrated.

On 19 July, a proposed new Belgian Nationality law (also see the report) passed the Belgian Parliament’s Justice Committee with a large majority from left, right, and centre. It will be voted on in the plenary session in the autumn and likely go into force on 1 January 2013.

On the eve of Belgium’s National Holiday, I decided to assess the prospective impact of the new law on immigrants’ path to Belgian citizenship. I used the MIPEX “Improve Your Score” function, which is open to any user of the website.

A right to naturalise, if immigrants can meet the conditions first…

The graph below presents the ordinary naturalisation procedure before (labelled ‘2007’) and after the proposed law (labelled ‘2010’). The changes in all the individual indicators are presented at the end of this paper.  

Contrary to my expectations, the law does not simply restrict access to nationality. Instead, the proposal mixes restrictions with good governance. Before, legal residence was the main criterion for discretionary 3-year ‘naturalisation’ and 7-year rights-based ‘declaration of nationality’. Afterwards, the conditions for both procedures would become slightly more restrictive (-12 on MIPEX ‘conditions’), though much depends on free and accessible integration courses in Flanders–and soon in Brussels and Wallonia. Applicants who meet the conditions have a slightly clearer eligibility for naturalisation (+5 on ‘eligibility’) and the same rights-based procedure for both (+29 on ‘security of status’). The path to citizenship would be clearer and quicker, but only for the immigrants who could meet the new language, social, and economic requirements.

Under the proposed nationality law, the conditions for integration would not necessary get worse, but they would not get much better (+5 overall). Access to nationality in Belgium would remain one of the most favourable for integration among Western democracies, on par with Canada, Australia, and Sweden.

Clearer right and procedure

The law would resolve many of the underlying problems with the current procedure. Ordinary immigrants would still have a slightly favourable eligibility for naturalisation, similar to many major countries of immigration. Now, they would also enjoy slightly favourable security during the procedure, as in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries:

First and foremost, the law would remove the Naturalisation Committee from the ordinary naturalisation procedure. Now, the same rights-based procedure would apply for naturalisation and declaration of nationality. All applicants who meet the legal conditions and criminal background check would have the right to become Belgian. The Public Prosecutor’s Office would decide within 4-months, as opposed to the 2-3 years under the current Naturalisation Committee. Rejected applicants would receive reasoned decisions and the right to appeal, as in most MIPEX countries. Also, the law’s redefinition of ‘uninterrupted residence’ would finally allow applicants to have temporary absences, also similar to most MIPEX countries.

These procedural changes do contain several restrictions. ‘Ordinary’ immigrants would have to wait slightly longer (5 instead of 3 years of naturalisation, 10 instead of 7 years of declaration). 5 years is the standard for many countries of immigration (e.g. United States, France, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden), while 10 years is rare across Europe (e.g. Austria, Italy, Spain) and the maximum allowed under the relevant Council of Europe Convention. In addition, the spouses of Belgian citizens and refugees will have a harder time applying than under the current procedures. The state would also gain the power to withdraw citizenship from naturalised citizens for certain crimes within five years of naturalisation or for naturalisation through false marriages.

Integration courses must support foreigners to become Belgian

MIPEX finds that the new conditions would be only slightly more restrictive and costly — more like inclusive Australia and Canada than like more restrictive Austria, Denmark, Germany, or The Netherlands:

The language and social integration requirements are relatively flexible. The average country requires a language knowledge of A2 for naturalisation. Applicants who attended schools in the country are likewise exempt in countries like Austria, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

However, European studies on intergation requirements have found that these requirements can be disproportionate barriers for certain types of people, such as the elderly, the lower-educated, refugees, other vulnerable groups, and, to a certain extent, women. Based on this MIPEX assessment, the new law’s integration requirements will only encourage immigrants to succeed if all foreigners can take free and professional courses and language assessments, not just in Flanders, but also in Brussels and Wallonia

The other methods can be costly and cumbersome for applicants to prove their language and social integration. Based on the ICS data, many foreigners have probably not yet taken a language or integration course, especially in Francophone Belgium. Many residents of Brussels and Wallonia may be delayed or discouraged from becoming citizens, unless courses are soon available for all potential applicants–both newcomers and long-settled migrants.

Job requirement may be the major obstacle to naturalisation

Applicants who hope to naturalise after five years must have worked 468 days during that time. MIPEX suggests that economic requirements are not compatible with citizenship. Half of the MIPEX countries do not link citizenship with a job or income, including Australia, Canada, and the United States. Long-term residents already have equal access to social benefits, so the acquisition of nationality is more a question of equal rights and recognition than of economic contribution. Since foreigners do not enjoy the benefits of citizenship on the labour market, such requirements and fees may reinforce disadvantage on the labour market, rather than stimualting entry into the workforce. Indeed, in Belgium, non-EU citizens, especially women, are less likely to have jobs than naturalised or native-born Belgians, often for many good reasons (e.g. family responsibilities, education or training). Working foreigners are also more likely to work on temporary contracts, in precarious sectors,  and in jobs below their qualifications. For these reasons, the Francophone Green Party, Ecolo, called the requirement “discriminatory.” 

Conclusion: Does the law give Belgians something to celebrate on their National Day?

Should the law be passed, Belgians at next year’s National Day can expect to be joined by more new Belgians-in-waiting, as people may want to apply before the law’s anticipated entry into force on 1 January 2013. After that, the future depends on whether the law and the coming integration courses correspond to reality in society. If the law’s new conditions do act as incentives for integration, then fewer people may be able to apply immediately, but as many–if not more–should apply as before within a short period of time. In other words, the application and naturalisation rates may drop temporarily, but they should rebound to the same–if not higher–levels. If instead these policies do not create the conditions for people to learn the language, get jobs, or participate more in society, then the naturalisation rate may drop and remain disproportionately low. Belgium would welcome fewer new Belgians for years to come. And that sort of society is not something to celebrate.

Prospective Impact of proposed Belgian Nationality Law