Berlin’s Brexiteers

As the dust settles on Britain’s vote to leave the EU, what will become of the 13,500-plus Brits who call Berlin home? We spoke to three who are weighing their options.

Image for Berlin's Brexiteers

Left to right: Joe Howden and his son Nathan, Izzy Choksey and Heidi Leyton with the passports that grant them EU citizenship… for now. Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

As the dust settles on Britain’s vote to leave the EU, what will become of the 13,500-plus Brits who call Berlin home? We spoke to three who are weighing their options.

Since June 24 and the mix of outrage and hangover that followed the Brexit vote, the British and German media have been filled with articles about an alleged surge of “Brexit-fearing Brits” applying for (or at least inquiring about) German citizenship. The press agency DPA surveyed the Bürgeramter of Berlin and reported a rise in applications since the vote. An official at Bezirksamt Mitte claimed an “enormous increase”, while in Pankow, 19 Brits applied for citizenship in the two weeks following the referendum compared to one to five applications per year during the previous five years. An increase, yes, but hardly a Brexodus.

Beyond the hype, the very real question remains of what happens to the legal status of British residents when Brexit actually occurs. The Merkel government favours a “soft” solution in order to maintain good trade relations with the UK. The result could be a privileged immigration status not unlike citizens of Norway, Switzerland or Iceland. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel hinted at offering dual citizenship, generally forbidden for non-EU citizens, to those young Britons “who are more clever than their bizarre political elite”. But it could be months, if not years, before it’s all clarified, which has led plenty of Brits to at least consider becoming Germans. 

It’s a big step. The German Foreign Ministry ominously warns that “German citizenship law is relatively complicated.” The process takes up to 12 months and costs €255 for adults, €51 for children. And under current rules, applicants have to have lived in Germany for at least eight years, speak German fluently, know enough about German history and culture to pass a multiple choice citizenship test and prove that they can support themselves financially. How many Brits among Berlin’s famed creative class can meet all of those conditions? Not many. The others are left with convoluted plans to stay in Berlin, hoping they will be granted permanent residency, and working on their German.

Marriage or integration? 

Izzy Choksey, 27, works as a tour guide and has been living in Berlin for over three years. 

“Brexit has been extremely unsettling, I think on a personal level I’ll be okay. I’m highly educated with plenty of transferable skills.

I was happy to hear marriage wouldn’t make a huge difference towards citizenship – I wouldn’t want Brexit to be a factor in getting married.

I talked to a lawyer after Brexit because I wanted to know my options. With a long-term German boyfriend, we wondered if marriage would help. In a way I was happy to hear that it wouldn’t make a huge difference towards citizenship – I wouldn’t want Brexit to be a factor in us getting married, and I’d definitely prefer to be here on my own merit. I hope it doesn’t come down to it, but I would give up my British passport. I’m half-Welsh and half- Indian and was always so proud of British multiculturalism – now I’ve been forced to question everything. Until negotiations start, it’s hard to know what to do on a practical level, but really it looks like Brexit won’t happen for a while. I haven’t been here long enough to apply for citizenship here anyway… so the longer it does take, the more time it gives me to apply. One thing the lawyer did stress was the importance of showing integration. So I’m working on my German and hope to get up to the required level by March, just in case.”

Waiting and worrying

 Heidi Leyton, 38, founded the company Tour Guides Berlin and has lived here for 10 years.

My German is good, but Brexit has given me the extra impetus to get it up to scratch. I’ve started taking lessons again.

“My entire career development has been focused on this city. It would be very hard to go back to the UK. Obviously I’ve considered my options, and though I would give my British passport up, the idea makes me nervous. So I’m aiming for permanent residency instead of citizenship. Currently the German outlook towards immigration is still positive, and I’m getting everything lined up to apply. I need two more years of taxes to be eligible, and though my German is good, Brexit has given me the extra impetus to get it up to scratch. I’ve started taking lessons again. 

Part of me wants to make sure this is all done in advance of Brexit actually being triggered, but I do hold out hope that a deal could be reached. And if all else fails, I’ll just marry my dog Daisy – she’s a born Berliner!”

Family ties

Joe Howden, 37, runs a digitial and social media consulting business and has been in Berlin three years. He lives with his Swedish wife Nina and one-year-old son Nathan, who holds British and German passports.

Nina and I got engaged in January, but the wedding itself was in August after the vote. I’m not sure what this means for us. What will the cut-off point be?

“In the long term, our plan was always to move back to Britain. Our son is a ‘third culture kid’, and we were worried that he’d have a weird sense of place if he had a German identity before Swedish or British. Nina doesn’t want to go back to Sweden, so we were hoping to move to the UK before Nathan reaches school age. Brexit throws all these plans up in the air. Nina and I got engaged and registered the marriage in the UK in January, before Brexit, but the wedding itself was in August after the vote. I’m not sure what this means for us. What will the cut-off point be? If the UK does decide to leave, there’s definitely the potential for a run on borders, and I’d want to get there with my family before that date.

I think that Brits in Germany are going to be okay. The British government is refusing to give any guarantees that EU citizens will be allowed to stay in Britain, and this is probably their bargaining chip for EU countries allowing British citizens to stay. For now, staying in Berlin seems more attractive, and it’s definitely changing the way I’m thinking of our future.”