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Why is Vienna pushing hard for the easing of citizenship rules?

Authorities in the Austrian capital Vienna are campaigning hard for the federal government to change the bureaucratic process of naturalisation.

Why is Vienna pushing hard for the easing of citizenship rules?
Austrian citizenship isn't the easiest to get, but some vocabulary will help ease the process. Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

The Vienna authorities and the city’s so-called Integration Council have recently strongly criticised the existing restrictive citizenship law, arguing that it creates a “democratic deficit” by excluding over one-third of Vienna’s resident population from the right to vote. In a press statement, they have called for reforms to address this issue.

While the citizenship law is under federal jurisdiction and cannot be changed by individual provinces, regional authorities can still exert pressure for reforms. Vienna has advocated for law changes for several years, especially as the city’s immigrant population continues to grow.

Naturalisation as an integration tool

The latest proposal from the Vienna Integration Council, led by Deputy Mayor Christoph Wiederkehr of the Neos party, suggested granting automatic citizenship to children born in Austria if one parent has legally resided in the country for five years.

According to the Integration Council, Vienna has experienced a significant decline in the naturalisation rate compared to other European countries, despite the population growth resulting from immigration. The current requirements for Austrian naturalisation include ten years of legal and uninterrupted residence, as well as proof of sufficient financial means and a secure livelihood.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Does Austria allow me to have multiple citizenships?

The Integration Council called for reducing the length of required residence, lowering income thresholds, and allowing dual citizenship. They also emphasised the need for increased resources for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (MA 35) in Vienna to streamline and enhance the efficiency and transparency of the naturalisation process.

Additionally, the council highlighted the challenges the current citizenship law poses to the integration process. Gerd Valchars, a member of the Integration Council and a political scientist, said that naturalisation is vital in facilitating social integration, leading to higher incomes, lower unemployment rates, improved housing conditions, and better educational opportunities for children.

austria passport

Austria has strict rules on citizenship, but a powerful passport. (© Amanda Previdelli / The Local)

‘Democratic deficit’

It’s not the first time Vienna has mentioned an “increasing democratic deficit” in Austrian society. 

Already in its Integration Monitor 2020, the SPÖ-led administration said: “A democracy thrives on the participation of the largest possible number of people subject to the laws that are passed.

“But if people are not allowed to vote because of their citizenship or do not (any longer) make use of their right to vote (as it happens especially often with disadvantaged population groups1), this leads to the fact that their interests are no longer represented in parliament, state parliament, the municipal council or district council. This is a massive democratic deficit that has been growing in recent years due to increasing mobility and immigration.”

“The situation is exacerbated by the very restrictive naturalisation law in force in Austria, as described above. Not only does the representativeness and, thus, legitimacy of democracy suffer from this situation, but it also leads to an integration policy problem. This is because people who are not allowed to participate in decision-making may develop less interest in political processes and the development of the society in which they live”, it added.

BACKGROUND: What are Austria’s Social Democratic Party’s plans to ease citizenship rules?

The City has called for easing citizenship rules for almost 20 years, requesting that political participation rights be linked to residents after a certain stay.

In 2003, Stadt Wien introduced voting rights for third-country nationals at the district level, with prerequisites such as five years of legal residence and main residence in Vienna. However, this regulation was overturned by the Constitutional Court in 2004 because Austrian federal constitutional law only recognises a uniform right to vote at all levels of the federal state linked to Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Could Austria ever change the rules to allow dual citizenship?

Who is prevented from voting in Vienna and Austria?

At the beginning of 2022, 31.5 percent of the population of voting age 16 and older were not allowed to vote in elections at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, according to Stadt Wien data.

According to the latest information, 14.18 percent of Viennese citizens of voting age are citizens of other EU member states and, therefore, eligible to vote at least at the district level.

However, 17.26 percent of Viennese citizens of voting age have the citizenship of a third country and are therefore not allowed to vote at any level.

In some districts, the proportions of people without voting rights are much higher. In Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, 42.4 percent of the population of voting age do not have the right to vote. In no other district is the proportion of Viennese who are allowed to participate in democratic processes lower. In contrast, in Hietzing, “only” 20.8 percent are excluded from democratic participation.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Why 1.4 million people can’t vote

Young people with foreign citizenship are particularly affected by the exclusion from the right to vote: 41.4 percent of Viennese citizens between the ages of 16 and 44 do not have Austrian citizenship.

In Austria, the latest Statistik Austria data shows that 19 percent of all people residing in the country are not Austrian nationals – and, therefore, would not have the right to vote. The number has increased considerably since January 1st 2022, when 17.7 percent of the population had foreign citizenship. This considers people of all ages, and not only those of voting age (16 or above).

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Burgergate: Is the Austrian chancellor doomed after McDonald’s outburst?

In fine Austrian tradition, a leaked video showing Chancellor Karl Nehammer talking about what poor children can eat is continuing to cause the premiere a major political headache.

Burgergate: Is the Austrian chancellor doomed after McDonald's outburst?

Addressing supporters at an expensive wine bar in Salzburg, the Chancellor, of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) dismissed left-wing complaints that there are children in Austria going hungry because everyone could afford a €1.70 Hamburger from McDonald’s. He admitted that “it’s not healthy, but it’s cheap”.

Prominent political scientist Natascha Strobl explains why this could be the beginning of the end for the embattled chief who took over as Chancellor after one of the worst political crises in recent history in Austria when Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign amid a corruption probe. Nehammer’s strategy was to present himself as a safe pair of hands, but that isn’t working.

“Nehammer tried to calm the waters and present himself as someone who would work with anyone. But he has always slipped up. This isn’t the first time” Strobl told The Local, referring to when Nehammer said that if Austrians didn’t control inflation they would have to choose between alcohol and drugs. “People feel this is the proof that he’s incapable of doing the job.”

‘It’s over’

Strobl explains that Nehammer’s beleagured centre-right People’s Party is currently polling in third place behind both the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the left-wing Social Democrats (SPÖ). “They’re trying to offer themselves as the respectable conservative party, but it hasn’t stuck. My prediction is that it’s over for Nehammer because people won’t forget as it sparked outrage.”

READ ALSO: Austrian chancellor under fire for saying low-income families should eat at McDonalds

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is leader of the ÖVP.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is leader of the ÖVP. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

The political storm has not died down, despite Nehammer’s party defending him as saying what everyone think. Strobl explains that, even though many people might share his conservative opinions about parents having a responsibility to feed their own children, it is how he said it that provoked offense, gathered at an expensive wine and cheese event and wagging his finger, with the reference to McDonald’s, which still has some stigma in Austria.

Lef-wing Social Democrat leader Andreas Babler, had sharp criticism for his rival and wrote a public letter to ÖVP supporters urging them to vote for him instead. “Austrians don’t deserve this,” he said. “Austrians should be governed by a Chancellor who likes the people here, respects them and doesn’t hold them in contempt.”

Adding to the turmoil of Austrian politics is that the ÖVP government accidentally sent secret plans to launch an investigation into other parties, including their Green coalition partners, to the liberal opposition party NEOS, it emerged on Monday.

The NEOS party leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger called this “a frontal attack on their own coalition partner and a breach of the coalition, that is completely clear”and “an abuse of Parliamentary procedure” that could bring down the unhappy conservative-green alliance