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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle