There is still something to gain from citizenship. Photo: Getty
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More EU migrants are becoming British citizens – but why would they bother?

What is the point of citizenship?

As the pound strengthens against the euro, the latest data from the ONS show that there has been a rise in migrant workers to the UK from other EU countries. But while the focus has been on the numbers of migrants working in the UK, a more interesting development is clear from a different set of data – the government’s figures on citizenship.

The last fifteen years have seen a surge in the number of people becoming British citizens – the total number of citizenship grants has more than doubled since the early 2000s. At first glance, this isn’t surprising. There’s been a lot more migration to the UK in recent decades, and there are plenty of benefits to becoming a citizen, from having unrestricted entry into the UK to not having to worry about visas when looking for work.

But in the data there’s something that is surprising: the number of EU migrants becoming citizens has also increased, particularly migrants from the ‘A8’ countries in Central and Eastern European that joined the EU in 2004. The numbers are still small – only around 18,000 in 2013 – but there’s a clear positive trend. For A8 migrants, the rise kicked in from around 2009 onwards. This makes sense: you usually need to reside in Britain for five years before applying for citizenship, and accession took place in 2004.

Click on graph to enlarge

The odd thing about this is that EU migrants are legally entitled to many of the rights of British citizens. It’s true that there are a few things EU migrants can’t do without becoming British citizens – like vote in general elections. And there are also additional rules around benefits, some of which have come into play recently – for instance, EU jobseekers have to wait three months and then face a residency test if they want to get income-based jobseeker’s allowance. But EU migrants are generally entitled to the same benefits as British citizens – and after five years of staying in the UK EU migrants have the right to permanent residence. What with all the extra costs and hassle involved in applying for citizenship (the standard naturalisation fee is currently £906), it’s not clear why EU migrants would bother.

There is one stand-out reason. Given all the news about a future referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the potential renegotiation of freedom of movement rules, and a clampdown on benefits, some migrants from A8 countries might feel that their position is a little more precarious than the current law suggests.

IPPR found some examples of this reasoning while carrying out the research for our recent report ‘Shared Ground’. Emilija, a young parent in Normanton, talked to us about her reasons for wanting to become a UK citizen: ‘I’ve read in the paper they are going to kick us out, so I would do it [gain British citizenship] for security. It won’t change a lot, but I would feel more comfortable.’

This explanation for the surge raises an important question: what’s the point of citizenship? For the French revolutionaries, becoming a citizen was about no longer being a subject: it was a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between the individual and the state. Britain has a very different history (on some accounts, we are technically still subjects rather than citizens). But citizenship still contains a moral dimension: it’s about rootedness, commitment, and stability. Being a citizen is about more than accruing a set of entitlements; it’s about establishing a bond with the UK and with your local neighbourhood. Citizenship encourages people to settle permanently and reduces the population churn that can at times undermine cohesion and put pressure on public services. And, according to IPPR research on public attitudes to migration, there is wide public support for permanent settlement as opposed to temporary residence and churn.

So even if the reasons for the boost in citizenship numbers from A8 countries are largely pragmatic, the act of acquiring citizenship is still an important way of strengthening the ties of new migrants to the UK. That’s why the government should focus on encouraging more people to become citizens and making sure that the process of becoming a citizen is a meaningful one. At IPPR we’ve advocated auto-enrolling migrants on a path to citizenship after five years to encourage people to become citizens. We’ve also outlined plans for a more localised, community-focused citizenship test, based on the realities of daily life in the UK.

These measures should apply just as much to EU migrants as to newcomers from outside the EU. Yes, their legal status is different, and they have less to gain from British citizenship. But national citizenship still matters, above and beyond the sum of its material benefits. The surge in citizenship is something to be embraced, for EU and non-EU migrants alike.

Marley Morris is a researcher at IPPR

Photo: Getty Images
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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.