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

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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