Becoming French, German, Italian or Spanish costs, on average, £156. As of April 2018, becoming British costs £1330, plus £65 for the prerequisite Permanent Residence document and about £200 for tests fees, authentications, language skill certifications and document translations. And then, if after many months your application is finally approved and the finishing line is in sight, you are likely to be asked to pay another £130 for the citizenship ceremony (unless you can afford to take a day off work to attend the free weekday morning ceremony). This does not, of course, include the hours invested in filling in forms, memorising test questions and waiting in various queues for document services, biometric enrolment and test administration.
I am not lamenting the gaping hole in my wallet. Having lived and worked in the UK for 22 years, I am fortunate to have a good income and will not suffer significant hardship as a result of becoming British. Not everyone is as fortunate. More importantly, not everyone should have to be in order to be eligible for Britishness. This is important because it goes to the heart of what this government seeks to construct: a society ruled by those who can pay, and a ‘hostile environment’ for those who can’t. A de-facto tax on voting.
Let’s take a step back and look at bigger picture.
In the UK, citizenship is not automatically acquired by birth. Immigrants as well as many UK-born children of immigrants therefore can only acquire British citizenship by naturalisation. Access to UK citizenship via naturalisation however is conditional upon the payment of substantial fees. Thus, if not acquired by birth, citizenship depends on the economic performance of an individual. On the basis of my rough calculation above, fees currently amount to an estimated total of £1600. This is equivalent to 66 percent of the average monthly net income in the UK – an unsurmountable obstacle for many.
This price tag bears no correlation to the actual cost to the Home Office of processing citizenship applications which, even if adjusted for the inefficiency of the Home Office, is estimated at £372.According to BBC reports, the Home Office has made more than £800 million in profits from their nationality services over the past six years.This includes registration fees for children who do have citizenship rights but, like my daughter, were born in the wrong year.
Apart from the easy income generation for the Home Office, this price is symptomatic of something more sinister: the deliberate policy to disenfranchise those unable to pay. Anyone who cannot, without considerable hardship, stump up £1600 in one go, is effectively barred from fundamental civil rights. They may, depending on provenance, acquire permanent residence status, but never the right to vote or stand in national elections or enjoy the many benefits – from lower university tuition fees to unrestricted re-entry into the UK – only citizenship offers.
The policy of disenfranchise on the basis of wealth is not new, of course: it prevailed until the beginning of the 20thcentury in many European countries where voting rights were granted according to the amount of tax paid or land owned. Notably, and maybe not surprisingly, it also prevails to this day in countries ruled or influenced by right wing, anti-immigration governments such as Austria and the Netherlands.
A recent economic study found that in some countries, ‘changes in naturalisation fees [are] conducted independently from a reform of naturalisation procedures, suggesting a rationale of fees as incremental tightening of access to citizenship (i.e. in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom), as an instrument to differentiate between more or less desirable applicants’ . Notably, the study also found that‘differences in economic criteria for naturalisation can be explained by the long term power of far-right parties and by immigration rates ’.In other words: anti-immigration governments use fees as a barrier to entry, regardless of other naturalisation criteria. Of all 9 European countries subject to the study, the UK had by far the highest fees.
Officially, to become British you must show that you have ‘settled’ in the UK for a certain time (usually five years), obey by its laws, have knowledge of the English language as well as British history, institutions and values – all very reasonable and broadly in line with other countries’ citizenship policies. Financial power is not listed, not is it an indication for the ability to integrate in British society. In practice however, prohibitive naturalisation fees serve as a means of electoral exclusion.
Citizenship, moreover, is not only precondition for democratic participation. It also fosters integration and a sense of identity. A friend of mine said it was ‘the feeling that you are a fully fledged, officially accepted member of society’. Policy goals such the prevention of radicalisation and crime reduction in turn depend on successful integration and social membership. How can we expect live-long residents to respect our laws – Equality? Human rights? Democracy? - if they are denied access to services and the right to participate in elections? How can we expect them to feel solidarity and empathy with a society that shows them little of either, unless they are wealthy?
For one group of would-be Brits, this policy is particularly relevant: more than two years after the Brexit referendum, there is still significant uncertainly over the rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK. Whatever the eventual ‘deal’ they will be offered, EU citizens in the UK are unlikely to retain the same rights as today. Any type of Permanent Residence is likely to fall short of current status. This means that many see no other option than to seek UK citizenship. Or, like a number of my friends, pack up and leave a country they feel no longer welcomes them.
Residents from other countries often find themselves in similar, or worse, situations. As the Windrush scandal has shown, even life-long residency in the UK does not protect immigrants and their children from the prospect of sudden deportation. Being born in Britain and having known no other home, second generation migrants often still live with uncertainty and fewer rights than their British neighbours. For them, as for anyone else, only UK citizenship grants equal rights, including the right to vote and stand in national elections.
For me personally, the journey to UK citizenship has been a long one: for 22 years, I was content to live and work in a country that increasingly felt like home, content with being able to vote (and, twice, stand) in local elections. But every few years, I was asking myself why I should vote in German national elections and not British ones. Although of course I still identify as German in many respects, Britain is my home. This is where I started my career, bought my house and raised my family. This is where I pay tax and benefit from public services. And this is where I want to vote and stand for Parliament. So I paid up, grudgingly, too late. To encourage others, especially younger residents, to give them a democratic voice, to make them feel part of the society they have chosen to live in, we must end the tax on voting.
Estimate based on Hammersmith and Fulham Council current fees, https://www.lbhf.gov.uk/births-deaths-and-marriages/nationality-checking-service-and-citizenship/citizenship-ceremonies
Due to a ‘hole’ in UK law, children born in the UK between 2001 and 2006 did not automatically acquire British citizenship, even if their parents are both EU citizens and had both resided for more than 5 years in the UK. They have to pay £1012 in ‘registration’ fees, while children born before or after these dates only pay £49 for a passport.
Jeremias Stadlmair, Earning citizenship. Economic criteria for naturalisation in nine EU countries, Journal of Contemporary European Studies , Volume 26, 2018, p 50
Ibid, p 43
Ibid, p 62