The Great British Race to Get a Second Passport

As hard Brexit looms ever larger on the horizon, British citizens who want to keep living in Europe are taking matters into their own hands.

A man holds a British passport in front of the flag of the European Union on Oct. 13, 2017 in Bath, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A man holds a British passport in front of the flag of the European Union on Oct. 13, 2017 in Bath, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

For the vast majority of British citizens who oppose a no-deal Brexit, the state of play in Parliament is dismaying. Although many members of Parliament are resolutely opposed to the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union come March 29, the reality remains that no deal is their default option: Should Prime Minister Theresa May be unable to find support for her withdrawal agreement—which, by every indication, will be the case—Britain will have no choice but to leave the EU on the severest of terms.

Among the most vulnerable in this scenario are the 1.3 million British citizens currently living in Europe. They would have only a year and change to reorganize their lives, until December 2020, when the Brexit transition period ends and their rights to remain expire. A number of advocacy groups have joined together in a coalition called British in Europe in order to raise awareness and lobby lawmakers. But so far these groups—including the Brexpats, Bremain in Spain, RIFT (Remain in France Together), BRILL (British Immigrants Living in Luxembourg), and others—have struggled like everyone else to move the needle. For its part, the EU has encouraged member states to “take a generous approach to the rights of UK citizens in the EU, provided that this approach is reciprocated by the UK.” Whether the U.K. will ultimately reciprocate, seeing as the free movement of people was a lightning rod of the Brexit referendum, is far from guaranteed.

Even if the British government fails to retain access to Europe, however, British citizens living at home and abroad may be able to find a way on their own. The solution: a second passport. Across the English Channel lies an obscure but inviting matrix of citizenship and residency laws that, for some, promises to keep alive the freedom to live and work throughout the continent. And in a nation where 48 percent of voters, or 16 million individuals, voted to stay in the EU, the opportunity to do so—albeit in a different form—is sure to be appealing.

Of the British citizens living in Europe, 310,000 are in Spain, 280,000 are in Ireland, 190,000 are in France, 107,000 are in Germany, and 64,000 are in Italy—followed by a significant drop-off to a smattering in other countries around the continent. Fortunately for these British citizens, and for the handful living elsewhere, passports are not particularly difficult to come by (at least compared with other parts of the world). And seeing as the number of British citizens with dual EU nationality increased by 159 percent in the year after the referendum, many have already realized how to escape a fate they did not choose.

Roughly speaking, second passports can be obtained in three ways: organically, financially, or ancestrally. The organic route to the passport is perhaps the most difficult as it requires lengthy naturalization processes. Ireland, for example, which saw a staggering 497 percent increase in new citizenship for British people in the pre- and post-Brexit years of 2014 to 2015 and 2016 to 2017, requires applicants to prove residency for five of the past nine years. France, which has seen a 226 percent increase, is even stricter, with the same five-year residency requirement plus proficiency in French, proof of integration, and a citizenship test. Germany, which has seen a remarkable 835 percent increase in citizenship for Brits, is stricter still, with requirements of six years of residency, language proficiency, a citizenship test, and an integration course. Although the British government estimates that 900,000 citizens are “long-term residents” of another EU country, it is by no means a given that all or most of them will meet their host country’s naturalization criteria. And while marriage can offer a bit of a shortcut, restrictions still apply—Ireland requires three years of marriage, France requires four with three spent in the country, and Germany requires two years of marriage along with three years of residency. For the British citizens who have suddenly been struck by the possibility of no deal, meeting requirements and spouses will be a tall task.

For a murky few, however, a much easier path is available in the form of “golden passports.” This is the financial route to citizenship, a backdoor into the EU that can be accessed through foreign direct investment for five-, six-, or seven-digit sums, often coming in the form of real estate purchases. The BBC has the figures: On the lower end, Croatian passports will cost 13,500 euros. On the higher end, a Luxembourg or Slovenian passport can cost upwards of 5 million euros. For price tags in the middle, wealthy people can get away to Greece for a quarter of a million euros, Spain for a half a million euros, Malta for a million euros, Cyprus for 2 million euros, and more. However, the elitism and corruptibility of the golden passport scheme hasn’t gone unnoticed, and only a few months after a report from Global Witness and Transparency International detailed the more than 6,000 unaccounted new citizens, 100,000 new residents, and 25 billion euros gained through golden passport programs, the European Commission launched its own inquiry into the peculiar “investor citizenship” arrangements. The results of that inquiry were released last week and made the case for tougher security checks, more rigorous residency requirements, and better transparency. And although they did not go nearly as far as some had hoped, the very fact of the report’s existence suggests that the golden backdoor will eventually be closed.

The final path to a second passport, the ancestral option, emerges as both the least demanding and the least expensive. For some countries, such as Italy and Ireland, the generous principle of jus sanguinis invites anyone who can prove their ancestral ties to the country (with birth or citizenship records in a direct line of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents) to claim a passport of their own. It is difficult to determine just how many people actually qualify, and in some cases those eligible may not even know. But the eagerness among many to find out is eminently clear: Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs reported a twofold increase at the same time that one Italian law firm reported a tenfold increase in pre- and post-Brexit passport applications.

The ancestral option offered by other countries, however, has the much darker dimension of reparations and restorations for some of the most heinous offenses in the history of Europe. This variety of ancestral passports begins with allocations for Soviet exiles and their descendants, offered by Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. So far, these states have not reported much traffic, but this is quite likely to change given the 25,000 Baltic men and women who came to Britain in the 1940s and the thousands more who came in the decades after.

For Germany and Austria, where descendants of the victims of the Third Reich are also offered citizenship, applications have surged. In pre- and post-Brexit years, new Austrian citizenship among Brits has risen 112 percent. The number of applicants to Germany’s specific reparations program has swelled even more, by an astounding 1,500 percent. While Poland offers the same program to Soviet and Nazi victims, exiles, and their descendants, it has been somewhat less popular, seeing only a 100 percent increase in citizenship.

Going back even further in the timeline of Europe’s atrocities, Spain and Portugal offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews who are descendants of victims of the 15th-century Inquisition, the mass exile of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula that began in 1492. (Somewhat controversially, however, passports are not granted to Muslims whose Moorish ancestors suffered the same fates.) Since Spain and Portugal extended this offer, some 10,000 special passports have been granted—with an eightyfold increase in British-based applications in the months following the referendum.

Proactive though some European states are, one glaring absence in the list of victim and ancestral passports cannot be overlooked: colonies. It remains the case across Europe that the victims of colonization and their descendants are marginalized in the accounting of Europe’s faults as no major reparations program, citizenship-based or otherwise, is offered. And even though reparations for some do exist, many victims and their family members have been rightfully reluctant to seize the opportunity. Shortly after the referendum, Harry Heber, an 85-year-old Austrian-Jewish refugee, told the Guardian, “The proposition of seeking sanctuary in the very place that murdered my relatives absolutely appalls me.”

As the U.K. prepares for Brexit’s long-awaited arrival, an extraordinary array of demands continues to produce an extraordinary array of mitigating measures. In order to retain the free movement of capital and services, financial institutions have begun relocating trading floors to the continent. In order to retain funding and professors, universities have begun forming partnerships with European schools. But where British institutions may have the size and stature to avoid some of what Brexit is bringing their way, British individuals will have much more difficulty. Their fight for second passports, hopeful though it may be, only makes clear that they have no one to rely on but themselves.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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