Citizenship acquisition of Brits in the EU

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citizenship rstats

by David Reichel

British citizens acquiring citizenship of an(other) EU Member State

After the Brexit vote, it was quite clear that many British people, who are living in other EU Member States, will want to acquire the citizenship of their country of residence - just to make sure to keep residence rights and all benefits derived from EU citizenship (which is tied to having nationality of a Member State of the EU).

I once looked up the data and tweeted the result, which gained some attention. So I thought this could be my first, short blog post. In this post, I first show how to produce the numbers (you can skip it if not interested), show the results and then discuss a few points in relation to citizenship acquisition (i.e. naturalisation) based on my previous research on the topic.

How to access data on citizenship acquisitions from Eurostat and build a graph

One good source to look into the effect of Brexit vote on citizenship acquisitions is using Eurostat data on citizenship acquisitions in all EU Member States by (former) British citizens. Eurostat provides readily harmonised data across European countries. Sometimes it takes longer for data to be available, because it requires a lot of work to put together harmonised data from many countries.

I use the great R package eurostat.1 With this package, you can directly access the Eurostat database to download the dataset directly into R. I downloaded the dataset migr_acq, which includes citizenship acquisions by previous citizenship. The analysis is straightforward. I filter for previous UK citizens, then filter for other selections and only keep EU countries. Here is the code to do that.


# if you work on your code repeatedly, the best way is to save your table first and then load again
# because it is a relatively large table.

# dat <- get_eurostat("migr_acq") # get table migr_acq from Eurostat
# dat <- dat %>% dplyr::filter(time > "2007-01-01") %>% dplyr::filter(citizen == "UK")
# write.csv(dat, file = paste0("migr_acq-", Sys.Date(), ".csv"), row.names = FALSE)
# I did this on 2 November 2021

# read in the data
dat <- read.csv("migr_acq-2021-11-02.csv", stringsAsFactors = FALSE)

# define the list of EU countries ... yes without UK
EUlist <- c("AT","BE","BG","HR","CY",

# filter and summarise across all EU countries, except UK
dat <- dat %>%
  dplyr::filter(citizen == "UK") %>%
  dplyr::filter(sex == "T" & age == "TOTAL" & agedef == "REACH" & geo %in% EUlist) %>%
  dplyr::filter(geo != "UK") %>%
  dplyr::filter(time > "2007-01-01") %>% 
  mutate(year = str_sub(time, 1, 4)) %>%
  group_by(time, year) %>% 
  summarise(values = sum(values))

Now we plot the results. It shows the strong increase in acquisitions in the year of the Brexit vote and another strong increase in 2017. After another slight increase in 2018, the numbers almost double to about 30,000 in 2019.

When I posted the data on Twitter in March 2019, the numbers for 2018 were not available. Based on the trend up to 2017, I assumed the numbers will continue to skyrocket. I was wrong, because in 2018, only a slight increase can be observed. However, at least, my prediction was right for 2019 :-) See the updated Figure below.

If you are interested in how to do the animated graph, which I used in my tweet, check out the code here.

# plot the result
p1 <- ggplot(dat) +
  geom_col(aes(year, values), fill = "#8E826D") +
  geom_text(aes(year, values, label = values), vjust = -0.3) +
  geom_vline(aes(xintercept = 9)) +
  geom_text(aes(x = 8, y = 10000, label = "Brexit vote"), hjust = 0.2) +
  labs(x = "", y = "Number of citizenship acquisitions",
       title = "UK nationals acquiring citizenship in other EU countries, 2008-2019",
       subtitle = "",
       caption = "Source: data from Eurostat, table 'migr_acq', extracted on 2021-11-02")

While generally it seems quite obvious, why British people living in other EU Member States take up the nationality of their country of residence, the reasons why people naturalise are not so straightforward.

Why people take up citizenship (i.e. naturalise)

The question of why people take up the citizenship of country is quite complex. I researched the topic for my doctoral thesis (years ago) and also published several papers on the topic afterwards. While there is much more to it, I list here just a few issues of importance:

  • People naturalise mainly for pragmatic reasons, meaning that a new citizenship is taken up because it practically improves the life of people. For example, people naturalise because

    • they can travel much easier with the new passport (depending on where you naturalise),
    • they have general legal benefits,
    • the burdensome bureaucracy they face as foreign citizens in a country can be reduced,
    • other relatives naturalise too,
    • they can expect better chances on the labour market, and sometimes because,
    • they can avoid military service in the country of origin.
  • However, sometimes people naturalise not for pragmatic but for emotional reasons. People would take up citizenship in the country they reside in because

    • they want to be recognised as a full member of society,
    • be treated equally,
    • stay in the country,
    • they feel as citizens/nationals of the country, and
    • want their children to become citizens.
  • When EU citizens naturalise in another EU country, this is usually mainly driven by emotional reasons, because there are not many legal benefits because EU citizens enjoy already quite a lot of rights in other EU countries. As a consequence, Brits increasingly naturalise, because they would otherwise become third-country nationals and lose important rights. These are some of the results of my thesis, but it is only available in German, here.

  • Apart from the reasons for people to naturalise, people are not entirely free to do so. Most importantly, every country defines by law the criteria for people to naturalise. People have to prove many things before being accepted as a national, such as language skills, income or economic power, a certain length of residence in the country and so forth. Hence, not everyone can become a citizen and the costs and requirements of citizenship select a certain group of people.2 When people wish to naturalise and if they fullfill the criteria, they still have to weigh the costs against the benefits. This is discussed in more detail in this paper published in the Austrian Journal of Political Science. In my view, and supported by the data analysis, the decision to stay in a country is one of the most important reasons (not) to take up citizenship in a country.

  • One of the most crucial aspects of naturalisation is whether or not a person can keep their previous citizenship. Many countries in the world allow dual citizenship, meaning that people can have the citizenship of two or more countries. There is the trend that an increasing number of countries allow immigrants and their expatriates to have more than just the citizenship of the respective country.3 This is important for many people, as they have a life in more than one country and might want to move back (and forth), for example.

  • Acquiring citizenship has economic benefits, as it has the power to increase the economic and social integration of people.4

There is much more ongoing research on the topic and much more to learn. The increase in the number of naturalisations by British people in other EU countries highlights again the importance of national citizenship. Much more attention should be paid to the importance of citizenship acquisition practices and policies in my view. The example of Brits naturalising increasingly after the Brexit vote is also a good reminder that practical reasons are more important than emotional reasons. At citizenship conferences, people very often jump quickly into the discussions about identities and feelings of belonging. These are important, but should probably not be the main focus of policy discussions, in my humble view.

  1. Leo Lahti, Janne Huovari, Markus Kainu, Przemyslaw Biecek. Retrieval and analysis of Eurostat open data with the eurostat package. R Journal 9(1):385-392, 2017. Version 3.3.1 Package URL: Manuscript URL:

  2. Here is some research on topic: Maarten Vink et al. (2013): Immigrant naturalization in the context of institutional diversity: Policy matters, but to whom?, International Migration, 51(5): 120; David Reichel (2011): Do legal regulations hinder naturalisation? Citizenship policies and naturalisation rates. EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2011/51.; David Reichel (2012): Regulating Political Incorporation of Immigrants – Naturalisation Rates in Europe. ICMPD Working Paper No. 4; Jeremias Stadlmair (2017): Which policies matter? Explaining naturalisation rates using disaggregated policy data”, Austrian Journal of Political Science, 46(1): 59–73; Thomas Huddleston and Falcke Swantje (2019): Nationality Policies in the Books and in Practice: Comparing Immigrant Naturalisation across Europe; Maarten Vink and Rainer Bauböck (2013): Citizenship configurations: Analysing the multiple purposes of citizenship regimes in Europe, Comparative European Politics, Vol 11(5): 621–648.

  3. Maarten Vink & Rene DeGroot (2010): Citizenship Attribution in Western Europe: International Framework and Domestic Trends, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36(5):713-734; Vink et al (2019): The international diffusion of expatriate dual citizenship. Migration Studies.

  4. Floris Peters et al. (2017): Anticipating the citizenship premium: before and after effects of immigrant naturalisation on employment, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44(7):1051-1080; OECD (2011): Naturalisation: A Passport for the Better Integration of Immigrants?.