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Britons call for Belgium to amend 'administrative oversight' blocking new applications for Belgian nationality
A community support group for British nationals in Belgium is calling on the Belgian government to correct an “administrative oversight” that makes it more difficult for Britons to adopt dual nationality since Brexit.
In an open letter sent on Wednesday, campaigning Facebook group Brexit and Belgian Brits (BABBS) asked justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne to amend legislation by the end of the year.
This is the deadline British citizens in Belgium face for replacing their current identity cards with the new electronic residence M card under the Brexit withdrawal agreement (WA).
As the letter points out: “Despite legislation having been adopted to include M cards among the residence documents accepted as proving the right to work in Belgium, no such legislation has been adopted as regards the inclusion of M cards among the residence documents accepted as proving lawful residence for the purposes of acquiring Belgian nationality by declaration.”.
The legal anomaly means that people planning on dual citizenship with E cards that expire this year, have to quickly find a way of becoming Belgian, explains one of the letter’s signatories Emma Woodford, who co-founded BABBS in 2017 to help Britons navigate Brexit.
The letter continues: “This situation creates the potential for discrimination against beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement purely because of the residence document which they hold, which would be contrary to the Belgian Constitution.
We believe this anomaly proceeds from an accidental oversight rather than a wilful intention. However this omission could mean that many British nationals in Belgium, who have a strong desire to become fully integrated Belgian citizens, could be denied the opportunity to do so.”
Woodford is optimistic that the campaign will result in positive action. “It’s a royal decree rather than legislation so that makes it easier to change because it doesn’t have to go through parliament. It can just be adjusted with an excerpt proposed in the letter.”
She’s also quick to praise Belgium for its welcome to the British community. “There’s no negative atmosphere about us being immigrants or foreigners, quite the opposite in fact. This is really a technical issue, it’s not a codified “we don’t want you” at all.”
Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, an increasing number of Britons have applied for Belgian citizenship to guarantee their residency rights. In 2000, 153 Britons became Belgian, while in 2019 (latest available figures), the number rose to 1,630, according to figures obtained from Belgian statistical office Statbel by BABBS.
The majority of applications were based on five years of residence that requires proof of economic integration and the ability to speak at least one of the national languages. “But a significant number of non-working partners need to go through the naturalisation process that takes 10 years,” adds Woodford.
If the new M card guarantees residency rights, why do some people want Belgian nationality? “It’s important for people for people to have the choice. If you have an M card, you are tied to the limits of the WA and if that goes belly up at any point, then so could your M card and your right to stay, even if nobody is imagining that that would happen. If you have an M card, you don’t have the right to go and live or work in different countries in the Schengen area.”
While the British population in Belgium has dropped in the past five years, numbers jumped at the end of 2020. “Our membership boosted by about one third in December. Lots of people left the UK because becoming Belgian and European was more valuable than staying at home,” says Woodford.
BABBS boasts around 2,000 members with the majority spread across the country and around 600-700 core members living in Brussels. “We really just started off as a Facebook group and gradually becoming more concrete as people’s needs became more concrete,” she says.
Photos: Courtesy BABBS, main image (c) Ron Kay