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Becoming Belgian

We've spent the morning at the town hall, applying for Belgian citizenship. If you've lived here continuously for seven years (and we've been here for over nine) it's pretty much automatic; you just need to get your birth certificate officially translated into the local official language. After handing those over, and then a lot of hanging round in the foyer, we were given a declaration to sign and told that the procureur would get back to us in a few months with instructions on getting new ID cards and passports.

I've always felt instinctively libertarian about nationalities. I already carry both UK and Irish passports, as all people from Northern Ireland are entitled to do under the Good Friday Agreement (ten years old yesterday). I occasionally wonder if my father's birth in Malaysia, or his mother's in the USA, might give me a shot at another citizenship or two. But the Belgian state has served us well over the last few years, especially with our family's special needs, and it seems appropriate to deepen our relationship with it. We don't have to give up our existing citizenships; the most serious obligation is that voting in Belgian elections will now be compulsory for us in all cases, rather than optional for local and European elections. But spending a few minutes in a ballot box once every couple of years is not exactly onerous.

There is, I must admit, a slight factor of ameliorating certain doomsday scenarios at the back of my mind. Neither of these is hugely likely, but to get a little more insurance against them is not a bad thing. The first case is, what if the UK leaves or gets kicked out of the EU? I already observe the frustration of my internationally-minded Norwegian and Swiss friends, wanting to pursue the same sort of career that I am in, but fundamentally hampered by the decisions of their countries to stay out. Sure, the EEA agreements are meant to take care of that sort of thing; but psychologically, it just isn't the same. I don't think a referendum on anything positive to do with Europe could pass right now in the UK, and until the situation is resolved (preferably by the British body politic catching itself on about Europe, rather than by leaving) we are on borrowed time. I have Irish citizenship anyway, but my wife does not.

The other doomsday scenario is the much discussed potential breakup of Belgium. I'm less inclined to feel that it will happen now than I was a few months back - we now have in place the government that won the elections last year, and it is to be hoped that the educative effect of working with his Francophone counterparts on day-to-day issues will mellow Yves Leterme's approach. But in the context of the continuous hollowing-out of the Belgian state, citizenship rights are bound to go on the list at some point - there are plenty of examples of states with different internal citizenships around the world - and already our children's care provision is dependent on our continued residence, not in Belgium, but in Flanders. Presumably if the crunch ever comes, existing Belgian citizens will be transitioned into the new arrangements fairly automatically, so it makes sense to consolidate our own position now.

Those two issues probably are not worth thinking about even to the extent of reading (let alone writing) two short paragraphs about them. There are lots of positive reasons to embrace Belgian-ness: the quiet and subversive liberal ethos; the excellent (if occasionally bureaucratic) public services; the diversity and quality of food and beer. But what really pushed us to take the step was young F. He was born a few months after we moved here, and knows that his mummy is English and his daddy is Irish; but he goes to our local village school, watches Flemish children's television as readily as CBBC, and stunned us one day recently by coming home and telling us what he had been learning about "our six kings" (Leopold I, Leopold II, Albert I, Leopold III, Baudouin/Boudewijn and Albert II). He feels Belgian more than anything, and has no reason not to. Once the procureur has finished with our papers, the legal state of affairs will be brought into line with his perception.


Apr. 11th, 2008 12:49 pm (UTC)
Does F get citizenship through birth there or does he need you guys to apply on his behalf? I realise his school is different from the European School I went to but I think my schooling in Brussels was the best.

If Scotland became independent (which I'm ambivalent about) I'd probably apply to become Scottish, but I can't bring myself to become British.
Apr. 11th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
We were told that F's citizenship (and his sisters') will be pretty automatic, with no further form-filling required. Well, we'll see, when he gets to the age of 12 and is entitled to his own ID card...
Apr. 11th, 2008 01:24 pm (UTC)
ID cards! I forgot about them - I wonder where my ID card ended up? I remember my mother had trouble getting hers because she doesn't have a middle name so they sent her form back.

How do ID cards fit with your comment about Belgium's liberal ethos? Or do you think British people are silly with their obsessive mistrust of them?
Apr. 11th, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
In almost all countries with a Napoleonic law tradition, the ID card is a natural product of the state's duty to register its inhabitants (and their duty to register with the state). The safeguards as well as the system itself have accreted organically over the last 200 years. It's intrusive, but not as big a deal as, for instance, compulsory voting, and it's part of the generally understood citizenship package.

I haven't followed the UK debate in detail, though my instinctive sympathies are with the anti camp. I think the question of popular support is pretty important for legitimacy. Apparently the only common law jurisdictions that actually have ID cards are Cyprus, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. It's an interesting list!

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