In between trying to deal with one of Europe’s worst economic crises and a crippling series of strikes, the Papandreou government in Greece has introduced a new immigration law. It would allow the children of immigrants to apply for Greek citizenship, provided that
(1) their parents have lived legally in Greece for at least 10 years, and
(2) the child has completed at least three years of schooling in Greece.
By one estimate, over 250,000 children and young adults would qualify for citizenship. As many as 100,000 of those may be of voting age.
This is a huge, huge deal. In order to understand why, you have to understand the odd position of immigrants in Greek society.
Immigrants began pouring into Greece from its former Communist neighbors in the early 1990s. The biggest group by far was Albanians — about 2/3 of all immigrants are Albanian — but there are also tens of thousands of Bulgarians and Macedonians and a sprinkling of people from further abroad (Ukrainians, Filipinos, you name it). Today nearly ten percent of Greece’s population is immigrants, and almost 20% of the workforce.
However: almost none of these immigrants have been allowed to apply for citizenship. In fact, Greece’s immigration system is quite deliberately set up to make this almost impossible. Instead, immigrant workers are allowed a work/residence permit for a maximum of one year. The bureaucracy that oversees the immigration system is famously opaque and sluggish, so workers (or their employers) must apply for permits many months in advance. Even so, the old permit often expires before the new one is granted.
In fact, citizenship by naturalization is almost unknown in Greece. Greek law recognizes citizenship jus sanguinis, “by blood”, through at least one Greek parent. Otherwise… well, the naturalization process is so difficult that the number of new Greek citizens from naturalization is a few hundred per year.
Previous Greek governments operated under the assumption that Greece simply did not want non-Greek citizens, and that guest workers were just that — temporary guests. The system was thus designed to keep immigrant workers on a perpetual treadmill, always either applying for a new permit, about to apply, or nervously waiting for one after the old one expired. All the immigrants were thus vulnerable to expulsion for any reason or none: feature, not bug.
But this consensus is now breaking down. Part of the reason is simply the passage of time. 20 years after the first wave of immigrants arrived, there are now tens of thousands of Albanians and Bulgarians who have been in Greece nonstop for most of their adult lives. They own houses or apartments, speak fluent Greek, and are settled members of their communities. Furthermore, there are now about a quarter of a milllion children of immigrants; in some schools, they outnumber native Greeks.
If a child is born in Greece, speaks perfect Greek, wants to live in Greece, and is willing to swear loyalty to the Greek state — should that child be allowed Greek citizenship?
The Papandreou administration is saying yes. However, it’s not quite that easy.
A fierce nationalist backlash has already appeared. Parties of the right — especially the odious LAOS — are accusing the administration of “diluting Hellenism” and betraying the spirit of the nation. The Greek Orthodox Church has not made a formal statement, but it’s clearly unenthusiastic about a bill that would allow thousands of Muslims and Catholics to become Greek.
And while most of the nationalist rhetoric is irrational (and much of it is outright hateful), there is a real point here. If this law is passed, or one like it, then within a generation betwen 5% and 10% of Greece’s population may not be ethnic Greeks. They’ll be hyphenated: Albanian-Greeks, Bulgarian-Greeks, Pakistani-Greeks. In a country that is over 90% self-identified ethnic Greeks, this is going to be an incredibly fast and dramatic change.
That said, there is precedent. It seems to have been forgotten by almost all parties to the debate, but something like this has happened in Greece before. At the time of Greek independence, back in the 19th century, something between 5% and 10% of Greece’s population spoke… Albanian.
The “Arvanites” were ethnic Albanians of the Orthodox faith. They moved into the penninsula during late Byzantine and early Ottoman times; by independence, they had been there for centuries. They spoke Albanian and were culturally slightly different from their Greek neighbors, but there was little discrimination or hostility between the groups. They were united by a common Orthodox faith and a common resentment of their Turkish rulers. Intermarriage was common, and Arvanites who left their villages quickly became bilingual in Greek.
More to the point, the long war of independence cemented the Arvanites into the Greek nation. After a decade of fighting alongside the ethnic Greeks against the Turks, they came to consider themselves, not Albanians, but Greeks who happened to speak Albanian at home. Over the next 180 years, the Arvanites steadily assimilated into Greece. Today only a handful speak Arvanite even at home, and they do not like being called “Albanian”.
Arvanites have been Presidents and Prime Ministers, generals and admirals, artists and businessmen and scholars. The current Archbishop of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, is an Arvanite. Nobody gives it a moment’s thought. Being an Arvanite is a complete non-issue in Greece.
So Greece has managed to assimilate a large non-Greek population once already. (Arguably more than once. But the population transfers of the 20th century are a touchy topic. Some other time, perhaps.)
That said, this is going to be a very fraught and difficult law to pass. And whether it passes, and if so in what form, is going to have a huge impact on Greece’s future.
Watching with interest.