An estimated four million immigrants, including "guest-workers" and their families, will be able to claim German passports under the amended nationality law which was adopted by the Bundestag with a massive majority. No longer will Germanness be deemed to reside in the genes, as has been the case since 1913.
Otto Schily, the Interior Minister, hailed the new law as "important for social peace", and promised efforts to help integrate the seven million "foreigners" living in Germany. Until now, the principle of "Jus Sanguinis" granted German citizenship only to those who could prove their German ethnicity. Descendants of German emigrants in Eastern Europe and Russia were entitled to German passports, but children born in Germany to foreign parents were not.
Though that practice had clearly become outdated, previous attempts to reform the nationality law repeatedly foundered, largely because of most Germans' fear of being swamped by aliens. The government of Helmut Kohl had tried for 10 years to bring Germany's citizenship rules in line with most of Western Europe. But Mr Kohl could not bridge the gap between the liberal elements in his coalition and the rejectionists, mostly from Bavaria.
The difficulty of changing the law and the dangers of swimming against the tide of public opinion were highlighted by the travails of the new government. Though the Greens and Social Democrats quickly struck a compromise over its main points, the proposals provoked a national outcry, fanned by the Christian Democrats. In a petition opposing the reforms, the Christian Democrats collected millions of signatures, and lobbed the controversy into the election campaign in the Land of Hesse. As a result of their efforts, the regional Red-Green coalition suffered a shock defeat earlier this year, forcing the government in Bonn back to the drawing board.
The version that came up for the vote yesterday was consequently a pale shadow of its sponsors' original intentions. Not all children born to long-term foreign residents will be automatically entitled to German passports. And dual citizenship, the most contentious part of the package, is recognised now as an exception, rather than a right. Between the ages of 18 and 23, the new Germans will have to renounce one of their two passports.
The debate that has been waging especially fiercely since the new government came to power last year showed that many Germans were unable to come to terms with the suspected mixed loyalties of their neighbours. Opinion polls showed a majority in support of giving long-term residents equal rights, but most Germans recoiled at the idea of new citizens clinging on to their old identities.
And Gunther Beckstein, the Bavarian Interior minister, claims up to 50 per cent of children born to Turkish residents are sent back to Turkey for schooling, re-emerging in Germany in adulthood without speaking a word of German.Reuse content