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Who wants to be a Belgian citizen?
If you’re a citizen of the European Union, the advantages to having Belgian nationality are few and far between – unless you have a particular love for the country, of course. Those select Belgian-only perks are the right – indeed the obligation – to vote and access to some government jobs.
If you’re from any other country in the world, though, the gains can be substantial. We contacted a number of people who completed the procedure or whose applications are pending to find out what those are. Most of them preferred to be identified by their initials.
DC came to Belgium from Argentina with Italian citizenship that he inherited from his parents. As a European, he admits, there was no practical need to become a Belgian citizen. “But after 12 years living here, working here and feeling comfortable here,” he says, “I believed that I had to be more integrated in this country and take the responsibility of becoming a Belgian citizen.”
KM, meanwhile, is from a country outside of Europe and says he wanted “to be able to work anywhere in the EU and not worry about visas” – by far the most common reason foreigners gave me for applying for Belgian nationality.
For MT from the United States, it came down to freedom of movement. “As I am married to a Belgian citizen, I have always been allowed to work in Belgium – but only in Belgium. At the time I applied, my wife was looking into opportunities in other EU countries.”
Turning the tables
So once you decide to take the step, how do you go about it? The following information relates to an adult who is not stateless. Minors and stateless people have different procedures to follow, which are detailed on the website of equal rights non-profit Objectief. The following info was also provided by Objectief.
The information includes reforms to immigration laws introduced in 2013, although about 40,000 applications are currently being processed under the old law.
Adults can request Belgian citizenship in five circumstances: If you were born in Belgium; have lived in Belgium legally for a continuous period of at least five years (or 10 years, depending on the individual’s situation; are married to a Belgian citizen; are the parent of a minor who has Belgian nationality; are handicapped, an invalid or have reached pensionable age.
Each of the categories has its own particular set of conditions and requirements. Under the 2013 law, the need to prove knowledge of one of the national languages (not necessarily the language of the region where you live) and proof of social integration were added to the requirements.
The change in the law came after a dozen or so years of liberalisation, following the introduction of a fast-track procedure in 2000 that allowed some people to become citizens after as little as three years’ residency. The principle behind the fast-track procedure was that the road to integration could originate through naturalisation.
The changes that came into force in 2013 turned the tables: Only those who were already integrated could apply for nationality. As well as the additional conditions, the new law also extended the time frame for becoming eligible, from three to five years in one set of circumstances, and from seven to 10 years in another.
As we reported in February, the changes have led to an enormous decrease in the number of applications: from 18,732 in 2013 to 113 in 2014, to just 11 cases in the first two months of this year. This drop in the figures could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your position on changes to the law.
Administrative peace of mind
For practical purposes, the best starting point for anyone considering applying for citizenship is the interactive flowchart provided on the Objectief website, which is offered in French and Dutch. It uses a series of “yes” or “no” questions to guide you to the section of the law that best suits your case.
That will then lead you to the section detailing the documents you will be required to produce as well as the cost of the procedure. Objectief offers info sessions in Brussels by appointment, and they also publish a printed guide.
Then it’s off to the foreign affairs or citizenship department in your city authority or town hall to start the application process.
How did our panel experience the procedure? “Once we got the relevant papers in, it went OK, and the process is now long completed,” said GE from South Africa, whose application, submitted in Tremelo, Flemish Brabant, took 18 months.
Her biggest obstacle? “The Belgian culture and general attitude towards foreigners, and the total lack of care.”
She’s referring to the civil servants, an issue mentioned by other interviewees. “Uninformed and unhelpful,” states MT, who turned in his application in Tervuren. “We were told on multiple occasions that something was missing and were sent away. We finally had to just insist that they submit the paperwork as it was.”
Some, though, had the opposite experience. “People in the Leuven city hall were super helpful and efficient,” says KM. “I may be wrong, but I feel it’s easier to get nationality in Leuven compared to Brussels.”
That depends on where you are in Brussels. DC, who filed his application in the Sint- Pieters-Woluwe district, also found that “people in the commune were helpful and nice”.
“Belgian administration is tedious, but it’s like that in most countries,” notes EL, from Southeast Asia, whose application, filed in the Etterbeek district of Brussels, is still pending. “However, they are very, very consistent. I’ve never had two different administrators tell me two different things.”
And what will be the reward at the end of it all?
“Unrestricted travel. I can move about the EU unhindered” – MT
“Fewer visas when travelling, freedom to search for a job anywhere in EU, and fewer visits to city hall” – KM
“Apart from having a ‘home country’ again, we can take advantage of the ‘perks’ given to all Belgians” – GE
Carina Van Cauter is an Open VLD member of the federal parliament and one of the main movers behind the change to the nationality law in 2013. How does she regard the fall in the figures since the law changed?
Drop in applications: A positive?
“I think that’s a positive thing because now there are conditions applied to becoming a Belgian,” she says. “Language, integration through training in work or in school, economic participation – in fact all the things you might expect from someone who is a citizen of a country and a functioning part of a democratically organised society.”
For Van Cauter, the steep drop in applications means that people simply were not able to fulfil the conditions. “When you see the spectacular reduction in numbers, you have no choice but to conclude that there was a problem previously.”
Thomas Huddleston, programme director for migration and integration with the Migration Policy Group in Brussels, notes that the new laws “really depend on the success of the language and integration courses to be effective”.
The law set a certain standard of language knowledge and integration before the support was actually there, he adds. “On the Flemish side, language courses were being guaranteed under the new integration act, but, in practice, these are just now being rolled out. So the support wasn’t necessarily there for people to meet the new standards.”
An unexpected workload
Huddleston also sees another difficulty with the new law. “The purpose was to reduce the number of criteria for applications so that it was more clear. However, the way that these requirements are designed, you have to get a lot more information about the person to figure out if they meet the requirements.”
This additional work, in many cases, has to be shouldered by local municipalities. “They decide whether the application is complete, and they can stall – or refuse – applications. So if they don’t have the right information on what someone needs to compile for their application, then they’re setting the person up to be rejected.”
Huddleston adds that, under the previous rules, which he thinks were more straightforward, the role of local municipalities was much smaller. “If the people working in municipalities don’t give people the right advice, or misinterpret the requirements, then they are the ones who are responsible for people being rejected,” he explains. “The concern then is that you’re going to get more unequal treatment.”
photo: An integration ceremony in Antwerp last month