EU countries grant citizenship to tiny proportion of migrants

Just 2% of foreign residents were granted Irish citizenship in 2022, with the process of becoming naturalised being full of obstacles and often taking years.

By Maria Delaney

JUST 2.64% OF all non-nationals in the EU were naturalised in 2022, a new cross-border investigation has revealed. 

That is less than one million people, out of a total population of almost 450 million across the European Union. Together, EU countries host 41.2 million non-nationals.

Ireland was below the EU average, with just 2% of foreign residents being granted citizenship that year.

Naturalisation is the process of becoming a citizen of another country, usually because you have been living there for a number of years.

Sweden naturalised the most – over 10% of its non-national population, followed by the Netherlands and Italy. Austria, Estonia and Latvia, at around 0.5%, naturalised the fewest of their non-national residents.

This can partly be explained by the fact that not everyone who is a resident is eligible to apply for naturalisation and those who are eligible do not always apply, said Catherine Cosgrave, managing solicitor at the Immigrant Council of Ireland. 

Spanish investigative outlet, CIVIO, conducted this analysis, with contributions from partners from the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) including Noteworthy.

They found that there are enormous disparities in access to nationality in the EU. This includes differences that exist between EU countries as well as within the same country, depending on the context of the applicant.

For instance, most European countries offer shortcuts to naturalisation to a tiny number of people for achievements in specific areas, such as science, sports, or culture, while others leave the conditions up to the government of the day.

Ireland grants citizenship for distinguished service as well as to family connections to such people. However, this potential shortcut is unavailable to the vast majority of people who have to meet strict conditions which can include ancestry, residency and/or immigration status (refugees or stateless people).

One of the most frustrating obstacles facing people in Ireland is that the granting of citizenship is entirely at the discretion of the Minister for Justice, said Cosgrave.

“The inherently discretionary nature of the process causes stress and frustration for people who don’t necessarily know what standards they are required to meet.”  

Privileges for the few

Want to find out how people can become citizens in certain EU countries either because of special achievements or investments? Click ‘Start’ below:   

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

For a few years, Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria investing in the country was a path to citizenship, even for non-residents. Since then, pressure from other European countries has cut off that path in all but Malta, which is currently defending a lawsuit on this in the European Court of Justice.

Residents who have lived in Malta for 36 months and have made a €600,000 investment, or for 12 months with a €750,000 investment, may get citizenship at the moment. They must also meet certain criteria relating to renting or owning a property as well as donating a minimum of €10,000 euros to a Maltese NGO or society.

These shortcuts do not apply to most aspiring Europeans who must undergo a much lengthier and more difficult process.

Benefits of citizenship

Naturalisation offers people better lives. “Researchers have found a very strong citizenship premium,” citizenship expert Thomas Huddleston at the University of Liège in Belgium told CIVIO.

“Naturalised citizens are more likely to move up in their life, in their employment and their housing situation because they are better seen by the public and by employers.”

Naturalisation “is one of the best investments that a society can make in integration because it secures immigrants’ futures in the country, so that they can have a clear vision for what their future could be”, Huddleston added.

It also has an equalising effect between women and men, said economist Christina Gathmann of the Luxembourg Institute for Socio-Economic Research (LISER).

Women who gain citizenship invest more in their careers, and postpone marriage and childbearing until they are ready, both of which help them assimilate in their new countries and exercise more autonomy within their marriages, the economist explained.

Despite these advantages, our investigation found that European countries naturalise only a small fraction of their non-national residents each year.

Different people, different paths

Many factors influence those naturalisation rates: some factors depend on the states and others depend on the individuals.

A common method of obtaining citizenship is to have a certain number of years of legal residency, alongside meeting additional integration requirements.

Other methods include marrying a citizen, usually along with demonstrating some years of legal residency, or being a descendant of a citizen. However, being a direct descendant of a legal resident who is not a citizen of a European country does not guarantee an easy path to citizenship.

European countries differ in how long they want people to wait. A typical requirement is five years. For Ireland, applicants need to live here for five out of the last nine years, including the year before applying. However, Spain and Italy require 10 years in ordinary cases.

One major difference between Ireland and other EU countries, according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s Cosgrave, is our approach to permanent residence.

Ireland and Denmark are the only countries not signed up to the a European directive that grants long-term resident status to non-EU nationals who have resided legally and continuously within a member state for five years. 

Cosgrave said this is a “deficiency within the system” as it leaves citizenship the only option available to many migrants seeking stability.

This was noted in the most recent Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) report which stated that “just 1% of non-EU residents are able to settle as long-term residents in Ireland, under some of the most restrictive and discretionary policies in the EU”.

The alternative to citizenship for most non-EEA nationals is “a very temporary short-stay permit that needs to be renewed”, Cosgrave said. Depending on the permit, these can last as little as six month or up to five years. 

A long and unequal process

How long do people need to be residents in EU countries before they can apply for naturalisation? Click ‘Start’ below to find out:   

Barriers, both visible and invisible

This minimum period of residence is only one of the conditions people must meet.

Most countries have additional requirements, such as a certain number of years of working, language or culture tests and documentation requirements from applicants’ home countries. All of these can serve as barriers to entry.

Ireland is one of the few EU countries where no test or certificate is needed to become a citizen, but a declaration of fidelity and loyalty to the country is required.

People applying for naturalisation through other routes, including refugees or spouses of citizens, often face similar requirements.

There are also work or income requirements. In more than a dozen European countries, one of the requirements for citizenship is a stable source of income.

There is no such economic requirement in Ireland but the Department of Justice has stated that an applicant’s means of financial support forms part of the overall range of information considered by the Minister when deciding on an application.

It was also shown in the past that one of the main reasons for refusal in Ireland was that the applicant was not in a position to support themselves or their dependents.

All but two countries in the European Union, Estonia and Latvia, require a clean criminal record for access to residence-based citizenship. However, the scope of this requirement varies considerably from country to country.

In Ireland, we require “good character”. This requirement means that applicants must detail all offences, no matter how long ago they were committed, including ‘spent’ convictions (those removed after a certain period of time).

Applicants must also undergo garda vetting which includes checks for criminal records in Ireland and elsewhere. 

More hurdles and obstacles

Explore the variety of economic requirements as well as language tests and other requirements to naturalisation in each EU country by clicking ‘Start’ below:

Median processing time is more than 1.5 years

Cost is another barrier. As well as application fees, in practice there are many other costs, such as those for tests, translations or solicitors, that amount to additional unwritten barriers.

In Ireland, there is an upfront payment of €175 to start the application process and a further charge of €950 once you have received Irish citizenship. There are reduced rates for certain groups of people.

Since 2011, the State has pocketed €186 million in such fees, with over €12 million made this year already through the application and certificate fees.

Even people who do manage to overcome the official and unofficial barriers to apply, they often face uncertainty in the timing of the response to their application. States frequently take longer than their own official time limits for resolving naturalisation applications.

There is no official time limit in Ireland and the median processing time for applications is currently 19 months.

This “doesn’t mean anything” for applicants, Cosgrave told Noteworthy. She cited cases where one person received a positive decision in eight months but another had to wait three years.

“When you apply you literally just embark on a process and what will be will be, so that’s very frustrating for applicants.” A “proper status update” on where applications are at would help with this, Cosgrave said.

A large number of parliamentary questions (PQs) to the Minister for Justice are queries related to the status of specific citizenship applications.

In response to one such PQ this week, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee stated that her Department “continues to communicate regularly with all applicants to keep them informed as to updates on processing times and arrangements”.

She also said that “in a little over two years” the State has gone “from processing around 12,000 applications a year to processing over 20,000 applications”. She said this was due to “digitising and streamlining processes”. 

Long waiting times mean that other immigration costs can add up, Cosgrave also pointed out. In Ireland, this includes a €300 fee for renewal of many types of immigration permission – something non-EEA nationals must continue to do while waiting for their citizenship to be approved.

“Particularly, if there’s more than one family member who is applying, the costs can be quite considerable,” she said. 

Proud to be Irish

Overcoming all these barriers to naturalisation is in the interest of the host countries.

“If you accept immigrants into the country you want to make sure they prosper in order to make them contributors to your economy and society,” economist Gathmann said.

Naturalisation also helps create “a more diverse and democratic environment, for everyone living in the country,” said migration researcher Jelena Dzankic, co-director of the Global Citizenship Observatory.

“People are really proud to become Irish citizens”, Cosgrave added. “They’ve built a life here and feel that this is their home. It means a lot to them.”


Article adapted by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy

With reporting and visualisations by Ter García, María Álvarez del Vayo, Adrián Maqueda, Carmen Torrecillas and Lucas Laursen of CIVIO

Paths to European Citizenship is a data-driven investigation by CIVIO that was undertaken with the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet).

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and was the Irish partner for this cross-European project. 

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