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Becoming Belgian: on my quest for dual citizenship

I'm a Europhile Quebecer who has been living in Belgium for more than six years. Here's how (and why) I'm going to get Belgian citizenship this year.

I never know exactly where to start when talking about the Belgian citizenship application process, mainly because I'm under the impression that my close friends, family, acquaintances and probably a large number of unwilling people heard more about it that they were actually asking for. I admit this is a topic I feel quite passionate about. More than a year ago, I started spending some of my free time helping other foreigners with their application to Belgian citizenship through an association called Objectif. Which means, of course, that I know way more about Belgian citizenship law that's probably healthy or useful to me, but it has been extremely rewarding, so I hope to keep going in the coming year. And I'm quite excited because it will soon be my turn to apply for Belgian citizenship! Before I go into the "how", I think it's important I address the "why".

I have been living in Europe for a while and my attachment to the old continent has naturally grown over the years. I first came here with a curious fascination for the European Union, grew to discover many European countries (and cultures, and languages), got amazing professional opportunities and eventually realized that my affection had actually crystallized around the precious friendships I had developed here, which can only be described as my European family by now. It would be dishonest of me to say that I "feel" Belgian, as many Belgians themselves would first identify as "Brusselers" (from Brussels), Flemish or Walloon. My ideological reason for becoming Belgian is firstly my identification to Europe as the democratic, peaceful, united and federated concept that gave birth to the European Union in the first place. In the end, when looking back at my life, I want to have a tangible, irrevocable trace of the memorable time I spent in Brussels: a European citizenship should do the trick.

Besides the ideological and identity-related reasons, it goes without saying that I have very practical reasons as well. A citizenship is permanent, therefore giving me options in the future. I will have the right to live and work in 27 European countries, in addition to Canada. Dual citizenship would also be passed on to my children (under certain conditions). Most importantly, I would finally wave goodbye to the sea of paperwork I have had to go through since moving to Belgium, having to renew work permits and residency cards every single year. If I was interested, it would also allow me to work in the Belgian public service. However, the biggest benefit by far will be peace of mind, since I will have the same rights (and obligations: voting is mandatory!) as every other citizen. That is a priceless feeling that cannot be quantified or properly explained to anyone who hasn't had to go through another country's bureaucracy. It is a feeling that many UK citizens have taken for granted, for example, and who are now starting to grasp the consequences of their melting rights in Europe post-Brexit.

So, how does it work?? How can one apply to Belgian citizenship? (Skip if you have already heard my spiel before...)

To give a bit of historical context, it is worth mentioning that Belgian citizenship law changed dramatically in 2013. Before that, the spirit of the law stated that Belgian citizenship could be a catalyst to integration, so the conditions for applying were quite broad and vague: almost anybody could apply after living in the country for at least three years, so long as they could build a convincing dossier. All applications had to go to the Chambre des représentants, meaning that the system quickly became unsustainable: waiting periods escalated to several years and the dossiers kept piling up.

In 2013, a new law came into effect that reversed the spirit to stating that one should earn the right to citizenship, meaning a foreigner first has to prove his or her integration before being granted Belgian citizenship. The word "naturalisation" ("transitioning" to Belgian citizenship) was replaced by "déclaration de nationalité" ("declaration" of citizenship), because a strict list of conditions has to be met for a foreigner to obtain citizenship. However, because it became a strictly bureaucratic process, applications don't need to go to the Chambre des représentants anymore: they are collected at the Commune and examined by the Parquet. The processing time has been fixed to four months (written in the law). It is a double-edged sword: if one fulfills all the criteria (and produces all the right paperwork), the application is accepted and citizenship granted within a few months. However, it also means that there is no flexibility, and the devil is always in the details (i.e. paperwork).

There are a few legal bases on which to apply to Belgian citizenship, but there are common grounds defining the conditions. In principle, most people will agree with the fundamental criteria: having five years of legal stay in the country, having basic knowledge of one of the three official languages, proof of social integration and proof of economic participation. It's when looking at the conditions for each of these criteria that we fall into a rabbit hole of complications.

The legal bases on which a foreigner can ask for Belgian citizenship range from being born in Belgium, to being married to a Belgian for at least three years or having Belgian children. There are also bases for invalids, handicapped and pensioners, as well as a legal basis of 10 years of legal stay, but the most well known (and the one that applies in many cases) is the legal basis of five years of legal stay in Belgium. That's also the one that applies in my case, so I'll cover this one.

The basis of five years of legal stay in Belgium, as mentioned, asks for proof of uninterrupted legal stay (not that straightforward - see below), of social integration, of knowledge of at least one official language and of economic participation.

To prove uninterrupted legal stay, an individual needs to be in possession of an unlimited-stay residency card when applying for citizenship (so a B, C, D, E, E+, F or F+ card). The one-year A card (which is what I've had so far) is not good enough for applying, but counts as legal stay before getting an upgraded card. The special card (the one given to EU officials or internationals not under a Belgian contract) doesn't count as legal stay, meaning that many UK citizens working for the European institutions can't apply for Belgian citizenship, because strictly speaking, they were not formally residents of Belgium. Crazy how bureaucracy can suddenly catch-up and f*ck up your life when you least expect it! Another little known f*cker is the orange card, which is a 3-month temporary card given to foreigners before they are "regularized", or to foreigners applying for a card upgrade (as an "in-between cards" card). However, as it doesn't count as legal stay, it can "interrupt" a stay, resetting the counter to zero just because of a perfectly normal residency application process. A stay is also "interrupted" when a card expires and is not renewed in time. In other words, it's really not that easy to fulfill the "five years of uninterrupted legal stay" criteria. The document required to prove this criteria is the "certificat de résidence avec historique des adresses" provided by the Commune. God forbid if you have moved to another Commune in those five years, though: then one may say you have to get that certificate at the other Commune as well, etc. Belgian bureaucracy, you know.

Social integration can only be proven in one of four ways: having completed at least secondary school (CESS diploma) in Belgium, having successfully completed a professional training of at least 400 hours, having completed a "social integration course" or having worked non-stop for the past five years.

So what's the catch here? There are many, of course! The professional training needs to be one that leads to a specific profession or trade (language courses don't count in this case). Documents to provide include the diploma, but also the proof certifying the number of hours. Studies or trainings completed abroad, even if approved/recognized by the Belgian state, don't count: only diplomas obtained in Belgium. The social integration class had only been given by the Flemish community until very recently, meaning that the "parcours" could only be completed at BON Brussel (in Brussels). The "parcours" includes a 5-week social integration class (how Belgium works, etc.), a social orientation programme and Dutch classes up until level A2. It's only when all of these have been completed that one obtains the "social integration certificate", so it can easily take up to a year to complete. Only a handful of French-speaking organisations have been accredited to give the social integration class in 2017, so the demand is so high that they are all already full until 2018. As for the option of uninterrupted work for five years, I'll get back to that one later.

Economic participation needs to be proven by having worked at least 468 days in the past five years (or 6 trimesters of paid social contributions for self-employed workers). A nice little trick is that studies or training hours can be converted into working days, but only if they were completed (certificate or diploma obtained). The catch is that some people have worked more than five years before applying and very little since, but those working days don't count: only the ones in the five years prior to the citizenship application. The only accepted proof of work are the "comptes individuels" provided by employers every year for tax purposes (or the proofs of paid social contributions for self-employed workers). These can be a challenge to collect for individuals who have had many short-term employers, or out-of-business ones, etc. Nothing else is accepted: letters from employers, work contracts, pension statements, etc. Only "comptes individuels". Making sure to filter out through paperwork obstacles...

Proof of knowledge of one of the official languages (level A2) can be a course certificate, studies or training completed in Belgium, an accredited language test (Actiris or Bruxelles Formation) or by having worked non-stop for the past five years.

So for those who have been following, you might have noticed a build-up to the big, red, flashing truth: the best and easiest way to get Belgian citizenship is to have worked non-stop for the past five years. If that's the case, all criteria are covered at once: language, social integration and economic participation. Having worked for five years is the Holy Grail for citizenship application. However, as for everything, the devil is in the detailed definition of "uninterrupted work". Full-time and part-time work counts, as long as one has been paid every single month of the year. "Being paid" covers regular work days, but also paid holidays, sick days, etc., so long as one has been paid (meaning there has been contribution to the ONSS). What counts as an interruption is any unpaid day, which is sometimes sneakily called "authorized leave", "unpaid day off", etc. An employee can only have up to 10-12 unpaid days per year: any more and it will be considered as an interruption, breaking the magical chain and resetting the counter. This also means one has to be extra careful in-between employers: any month with no pay at all will be considered as an interruption. If the work magic flow is broken, one needs to prove social integration and language knowledge by other means.

Mercifully, I fall under the "uninterrupted work for five years" category, so my application will be relatively straightforward. Except for the issue of having an extra name on my birth certificate (for an application to be valid, the name on the birth certificate needs to be exactly the same as my Belgian ID card), which means I will need an extra document from the Canadian embassy called an "attestation d'individualité" (basically confirming that "Alexandrine Gauvin" and "Alexandrine Kathleen Gauvin" is the same person), but hey, it wouldn't be as fun if it was TOO easy! At the moment, I'm waiting for my unlimited stay residency card (B card), which I should get by the end of June. Once I have it, I can apply for citizenship. So by the end of this year, I will have dual Canadian-Belgian citizenship! Yes, I do plan on popping a bottle of champagne, indeed.

So that's the whole Belgian citizenship story! It's only the tip of the legal iceberg, though, as I have not explained how these criteria turn out to be discriminatory towards women, or all the specific conditions for the other legal bases, but it's plenty for now and for the purpose of this post. And yes, I do wonder every single day what else I can do with that large amount of relatively useless legal knowledge, considering I'm working as a communication professional in the domain name industry, but at least I'm using it for good and not evil. It's a neat hobby that brings me unexpected joy and meaningful interactions with people that can use the help and support, and I'll be damn proud when I get that citizenship, so it's absolutely, unequivocally all worth it.

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