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‘We were disenfranchised': The author of 'Exit Brexit' talks about becoming a German citizen

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Kate Connolly’s decision to become German means she can vote again. Photo: P.-A. Hassiepen

Several million British people living outside the United Kingdom have had their lives turned upside down since the Brexit referendum, and been plunged into insecurity about whether or not they can continue to stay in the EU. British citizens who had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years were not allowed to vote in the Brexit referendum, having no say in their future. 

Out of all EU countries, Germany has awarded the highest number of citizenships to British people by far. The number of Brits getting German nationality rose by 160% to in 2017 from the year before. In 2018, more than 7,400 British people became German. It’s not an unchallenging process—applicants need to learn the answers to 300 questions—many very obscure—as they don’t know which 33 questions they’ll be asked on the day. Many need to take a language test. 

One of the thousands of Brits now holding fresh German citizenship is Kate Connolly, the Guardian correspondent in Berlin. The 47-year-old has lived in Germany since the early 2000s, is married to a German, and a mother of two. Connolly’s book “Exit Brexit: Wie ich Deutsche Wurde” (“Exit Brexit. How I Became German”) was published in Germany last month. She says she has since had an “overwhelming” interest from the German media about her decision and her journey to becoming German. 

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Yahoo Finance UK: In your book, you described the UK after the Brexit vote “like a ship set sail in a storm” and getting citizenship in Germany akin to getting a place in a lifeboat. Was your decision to get German citizenship a purely pragmatic one?

Kate Connelly: I guess at the beginning you think what can you do to steer against what is going on, and it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Of course, it is a decision you wouldn’t have taken had it not been for the Brexit vote, because you wouldn’t have had to. You wouldn’t undergo this bureaucratic step out of protest or anger. It feels like drawing a circle around my family unit, and now we’ve all got the same passport and it feels like a good place to be.  

YFi UK: How big of a role did not being able to vote in the UK or Germany play in your decision to become German?

KC: For me the biggest perk of getting the passport was being able to vote. That was a key reason, because we were disenfranchised. You could say it is a fault of the EU as well, and it’s a fault of the German system that we live here, pay our tax, my kids go to German school and kindergarten, but I couldn’t vote, I had no voice.

Also, because of this rule that the Tories brought in, that after 15 years of not living in the UK you couldn’t vote, we couldn’t vote in the referendum, this historical decision. 

YFi UK: You wrote the book that sitting in a room with people from a host of other countries taking a citizenship test felt “a little bit absurd.” Why was that?

KC: When I made the decision to become German, I didn’t talk to anyone about it, and then I went along to the citizenship-test room, and in the group I think there were five British people out of around 17 – the examiner was absolutely gobsmacked. Then suddenly it snowballed and everyone you knew who had the option of getting citizenship was doing it. And anybody who still can, is, and people who cannot are feeling devastated.

YFi UK: What kind of reaction have you had from German people to becoming German?

KC: I have been quite cautious about telling people that I had it, and a lot of people have been very warm towards me, but some have said things like “how could you possibly be loyal to two different countries?” I’ve also been asked “if Britain doesn’t leave the EU will you then hand back your German passport?”

YFi UK: Why do you think the German media has shown such a huge interest in your story?

KC: Well, it’s fascinating isn’t it? The idea of thousands of Britons becoming German 20 or even 10 years ago is unthinkable. Looked at through the prism of German history this is quite a remarkable time. Not to lay it on too thick, but it does fit in with the whole narrative of the refugee crisis, as in a way we are asylum seekers, aren’t we? We need safety, I do say in the book that I’m not equating myself with an asylum seeker, but at the same time I’m not distancing myself from them.

Germans are also looking for a different way to view this whole Brexit thing , which they find so bewildering. That one of the consequences of it are all these Brits becoming German… I think it’s quite mind-blowing for them.

READ MORE: Brexit already pushes thousands of Brits to become citizens abroad 

YFi UK: Do you feel any differently towards Britain or about Brexit since getting a German passport?

KC: I feel a bit of a healthy distance to the UK and a closer relationship to Germany. I’m much more invested, although I think that automatically happens when you marry a German and have German kids. The overwhelming feeling is one of security, of having shored up the future, but at the same time I have a great deal of unease about what is going on, because I’m still emotionally invested [in the UK] obviously.

YFi UK: Would you still have taken German citizenship if it had meant giving up your British one?

KC: Yes, I would, but I wouldn’t have leapt on it with such, let’s say, gusto, it would have been much more of a difficult decision to make. Philippe Sands the human rights lawyer, who has a Jewish background, has said any one who knows 20th century history will know that you can’t have too many passports. Now I’ve increasing come to think that it’s not an exaggeration to think that what if this all goes so badly wrong, as in we end up warring with each other, that it actually could serve you well to choose what passport you have.

YFi UK: You’ve had a long career as a reporter, what has it been like to write about your own life?

KC: It was a challenge, it was scary. It’s not what I set out to do, and I had a lot of conversations about whether I was doing the right thing. But at the same time, I am doing exactly the same as thousands of other people by taking this step, so it’s almost as if in a way I’ve become, for the German media, a bit of a mouthpiece for all those people.