Virginia, US

The recent discussions surrounding the Brexit debate made me think again about my journey to British citizenship, and the importance naturalising as a British citizen has for the European nationals residing in the UK, and their families.

Originally from Poland, I came to the UK more than 11 years ago. Despite having resided here for such a long time, I only decided to apply to become a British citizen last year. The possibility of an EU referendum being held in the UK was certainly a big contributor to my decision, along with the ever-increasing cost of the application and the enthusiasm of my long-term (British) partner.

As an immigration law practitioner and a European national, I have been involved in various discussions regarding the pros and cons of acquiring British nationality by European nationals. Rather than discussing here the social identity, the sense of belonging and the travel benefits of becoming British, I would like to focus on the recent changes to the process and how becoming British may affect those European nationals who are (or who wish to) sponsor their non-European family members in the UK.

Europeans and their family members acquiring British nationality

Over the months leading up to the EU referendum I have received a number of enquiries from EU nationals, and their families, residing in the UK and wanting to apply to naturalise as British citizens. Despite it being unlikely that those European nationals who already live in the UK will be affected by a Brexit, it is easy to understand that most people are concerned about the outcome of the referendum and want to ensure that they have safeguarded their residence in the UK in the best possible way. It appears, however, that many of those who might be affected did not realise that the rules surrounding British nationality applications for European nationals and their families currently residing in the UK have recently changed.

Citizens of the EU and the EEA were previously able to qualify for British nationality once they have achieved the required residence period (5 or 3 years), possessed permanent residence for the last 12 months of that period (which one acquires automatically by operation of law if the criteria are met), and satisfied a number of other general requirements. From 12 November 2015 however, citizens of EU and EEA countries and their family members must have not only acquired a permanent right of residence in the UK, and held this status for at least 12 months, but also have been issued a permanent residence card before they apply to naturalise as British.

This has a significant impact on the timeframe for a Naturalisation application by those European nationals or their family members who have failed to obtain a permanent residence certificate or card.

EU or British?

Over the years that I have practiced immigration law, I have been asked many times by European clients “Is it better if I become British?” Far from the cost of a Naturalisation application, this question was usually a result of balancing two important personal and family matters: on one side, a natural desire to acquire the nationality of their country of residence, and on the other the need to sponsor or preserve the immigration status of their family members from outside the EU/EEA.

Previously, those who held dual citizenship of the UK and another member state could rely on their other European nationality to benefit from the terms of the European Directive (2004/38/EC). This was amended on 16 July 2012, and the change means that save for very limited exceptions, dual British and European nationals are no longer able to benefit from the Directive as EU/EEA nationals. As a result of this, family members are now precluded from relying upon free movement rights themselves.

The 2006 Regulations provide far more straightforward requirements for sponsoring dependants in the UK than those contained in the current UK Immigration Rules; therefore, most people, when provided with a basic overview of the requirements and procedures under these two different routes, will opt for the first. The main disadvantages and deterring factors for most individuals are the maintenance and financial requirements of an application as the spouse of a British national under Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules and the English language requirement. No similar provisions are contained in the 2006 Regulations.

Following the changes in 2012, some European nationals decided to delay their British nationality applications to enable their families to apply to join them in the UK using the provisions of the 2006 Regulations.

The changes introduced in 2012 continue to impact on the ability of those European nationals who intend to acquire British nationality to sponsor non-European family members; it seems, however, that in light of the upcoming EU referendum, European nationals are more inclined to obtain British citizenship.

Although we have been repeatedly told that, even in the event that Britain does vote to leave the EU, it will take years to extricate the UK from the EU paradigm, the close proximity of an EU referendum has certainly added to the debate over the pros and cons of holding British citizenship.