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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 09:47 pm (UTC)
Um, yes. An excellent analogy. So what does citizenship of Belgium mean? And what does citizenship of the UK mean? Of Ireland?
I think it's a bit like polygamy. Neither marriage nor citizenship is a contract in law, but they each have something of the flavour of a contract - the former is colloquially known as 'the marriage contract', and much of the latter makes up 'the social contract', of course. And I'm not sure that this flavour of non-contract can be entered into, with full commitment and honesty, with more than one counter-party at once.
This isn't in any way to oppose your Belgian citizenship, of course, and I have known many many people who have claimed to have 'dual citizenship' (although in some cases this amounts to gross dishonesty, as taking up citizenship B involves explictly renouncing citizenship A, which either one then conveniently forgets to mention to the bureaucrats of state A, or which the bureaucrats of state A choose to disregard). But if it came down to a choice, which would you choose? Which would your wife choose?
Apr. 12th, 2008 07:15 am (UTC)
Easy. I'd choose the country in which I live, pay taxes, own property, raise my children, and expect to die. But since I am allowed to retain the privilege that, should my circumstances change, I could return to Britain and resume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship there, I wouldn't choose to give that up. The important practical point is that I once again have representation to go with my taxation (I no longer vote in British elections). I don't regard loyalty to group, church or state, as directly comparable to the loyalty that is due to a marriage partner, and it is perfectly possible to have loyalty to more than one place or community. I would venture to say that among immigrants that is the norm, and the dishonesty would be to pretend otherwise.
Apr. 12th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
Surely marriage actually is a contract in law?

Anyway, numerous countries (eg Estonia, see saare_snowqueen below) do indeed insist on "monogamy" for their citizens. The two whose passports I currently hold, and the one whose citizenship we've now applied for, have chosen not to do so; no doubt in part because they recognise that the reality of personal loyalties is often a complex matter, and choose not to force a formal choice on their own citizens or potential citizens.
Apr. 12th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC)
Surely marriage actually is a contract in law?
Not in the UK. It does more than a contract can do, and less.
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
Surely this depends on your understanding of marriage, and of citizenship, respectively? Both of which would vary very significantly between cultures, even within (say) Europe.

For me, marriage is implicitly one-to-one, "symmetrical" - and by the way, not even remotely like a contract. Citizenship, on the other hand, is not one-to-one, it is not symmetrical, and it is more or less contract-like, as you say. I can't think of duties of citizenship appropriate to a liberal democracy which would necessarily exclude being a citizen of more than one country. The notion of "my country right or wrong" springs to mind, but I'm talking about liberal democracies here...
Apr. 12th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
Some marriages are more symmetrical than others (mine was very much so). But certainly this is a way in which marriage is very much unlike citizenship.

But I didn't dream up this analogy for this comment thread, nor do I suppose it was original to me. In my marriage, there was intense loyalty to the family we created: a nation of four. The true end of the marriage was marked not in court but by betrayal - the end of loyalty.

The analogy between a nation and a family is as old as the idea of a nation.

not even remotely like a contract
As with any comparison, this reflects experiences of both categories. My marriage had some aspects of contract, and certainly all marriages imbue rights, incur responsibilities, and may end up being picked over in court for the benefit of lawyers.

Duties of citizenship
As an extreme example, the duties of citizenship generally include military service, when the state deems it necessary.
Apr. 12th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
>>My marriage had some aspects of contract, and certainly all marriages imbue rights, incur responsibilities, and may end up being picked over in court for the benefit of lawyers.<<

I have to say that that's why I'd say marriages are a contract, but then again, that's from my definition of a contract being any piece of paper that needs lawyers to get out of.

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