Who can and who wants to become Austrian? Austrian naturalization politics as a challenge for democracy

Bild: Lukas Wank, Shabka, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

There is a growing difference between those who can vote in Austrian elections and those who are affected by decisions of Austrian politics. This difference is a consequence of international migration, but in essence politically constructed: Via restrictive citizenship and electoral policies, there is a mismatch between the obstacles to political membership and the incentives for it, resulting in a growing share of electorally excluded foreign residents.

When comparing naturalization policies in European countries, Austria always ends up on the restrictive end of policy indices on citizenship (LINKS: mipex.eu und globalcit.eu). Whether this position is desirable or not, it is a political question on which opinions may diverge. However, it leads to a low citizenship take up of foreign residents in Austria. In an “average” EU-15 country in 2016, about 3.3 out of 100 foreign residents acquired the citizenship of his or her country of residence. In Austria, this so-called naturalization rate lies below one per cent – and has so for almost a decade. Only 0.7 out of 100 foreign residents acquired Austrian citizenship in 2016.

Low naturalization rates are a political decision

Naturalization policies can be understood as a set of rules laying out who is considered as desirable – from the perspective of the government – as a (future) Austrian citizen and who is not. As asylum/refugee migration in the 1990s and early 2000s led to increasing numbers of naturalizations, the right-wing government composed of ÖVP and BZÖ at the time decided to restrict access to citizenship. This reform entered into force in 2006 and included among other things a more rigorous income requirement, a formalized language skill requirement and a citizenship test for naturalization. This policy reform was highly successful insofar as citizenship acquisitions via naturalization dropped sharply in the following years. Consequently, the share of foreign residents born in Austria is growing. Also, in a hypothetical context of zero net migration the share of foreign citizens in the resident population will continue to grow because Austrian citizenship is not acquired by birth on Austrian territory alone (ius soli) but only by heritage (ius sanguinis). While low naturalization rates were considered a success by the ÖVP and BZÖ, the debate on who should and should not become an Austrian citizen continued. In particular since the establishment of a State Secretary for Integration in 2011, Integration by Performance (Integration durch Leistung) became the narrative for legitimizing strong hurdles on economic self-sufficiency for naturalization. The message is clear: Only those who are highly productive in economic terms should become citizens.

Source: own calculation based on data from Statistik AUSTRIA

On the other hand, citizenship can be more or less desirable from the view of a foreign citizen resident in Austria. In general, citizenship invokes electoral rights and a status which guarantees the unconditional right to stay in and re-enter Austria. Given that the procedure is complex, expensive and usually requires renouncing any previous citizenship, it is questionable whether the advantages of Austrian citizenship outweigh the efforts for acquiring it. In particular, EU citizens and foreign residents with a comfortable economic position may gain less from acquiring Austrian citizenship than persons with a more insecure economic position and/or residence title. To be sure, income is a significant predictor for naturalization in a positive way, meaning that persons with higher income are more likely to naturalize. However, I argue that this is not the case because citizenship would be more attractive for wealthier persons but a mere consequence of restrictive naturalization conditions, which have put substantial fees and income requirements in place. Overall, there may be a mismatch between the opportunities provided by citizenship and the conditions for it: Often, Austrian citizenship is not available for those who need it and not attractive for those who can have it, resulting in low naturalization rates.

Why is a high share of foreign citizen residents problematic?

Not having Austrian citizenship can have negative implications for individual foreign residents, visible for instance in terms of labor market and housing opportunities, but it also poses a challenge for society as such: Despite a growth of the Austrian population over time, the number of persons eligible for voting in elections is decreasing, which is – as outlined above – a political decision. Since including all whose interests are at stake or all who are subjected to political decisions are imperatives of democracy, the Austrian political system faces a growing democratic deficit in form of an incongruence between those who are subjected and those who can participate in the legitimation of representative politics.

Three options for reducing the gap between citizens and residents

There are at least three policy options, with which policy makers can respond to the democratic deficit resulting from a mismatch between availability and demand for Austrian citizenship: (1) disconnecting citizenship and electoral rights, (2) easing access to citizenship and (3) developing incentives to naturalize. With regard to the first option, voting rights could be made conditional upon a certain period of residence instead of holding Austrian citizenship. This option, however, would only solve the problem of the incongruence of residence and voting rights; it also further reduces the attraction of Austrian citizenship. If Austrian citizenship should remain attractive, the second option is more plausible: lowering the hurdles for citizenship acquisition allows more persons to seek Austrian citizenship, in particular those who may need it. This can be done by lowering requirements, lowering fees in the naturalization process and by allowing dual citizenship. The third option may include a promotion of citizenship, e.g. by informing foreign citizen residents about the benefits of Austrian citizenship. Furthermore, social and economic rights may be tied more closely to citizenship. Such a scenario certainly increases the attraction of Austrian citizenship but reinforces the socio-economic stratification of citizenship and is therefore undesirable from an egalitarian point of view. Since options two and three are per se compatible, promoting citizenship and easing the conditions to it may close the gap between those who can, but do not want to, and those who cannot, but would like to, become an Austrian citizen. And, it would resolve the democratic challenge of naturalization.


A mismatch between those governed and those able to participate in elections constitutes a democratic deficit, which is particularly strong in Austria. Although this is a result of individual decisions about migration and citizenship acquisition, the problem itself is a consequence of political decisions, which led to exclusive citizenship laws and little incentives to naturalize. Accordingly, easing access to citizenship, i.e. by allowing dual citizenship and softening income requirements, in conjunction with promoting citizenship may resolve this challenge for democracy.


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Stadlmair, J., 2017. Party Positions on Economic Criteria for Naturalization in Austria. Int Migr: online first. https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12337

Stern, J., Valchars, G., 2013. Naturalisation Procedures for Immigrants. Austria (No. RSCAS/EUDO_CIT-NP 2013/4), Naturalisation Procedures Report. EUDO Citizenship Observatory, San Domenico di Fiesole.

Valchars, G., 2017. “… was wir uns von einem Zuwanderer erwarten” – Die österreichische Staatsbürgerschaftspolitik als Migrationsmanagement. Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 33, 47–74.

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Jeremias Stadlmair is a post-doc University Assistant at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna. He studied political science in Salzburg (BA), Warwick/UK, and Vienna (MA, Dr. phil.). In his dissertation, which received the “Dissertation Prize for Research on Migration” of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Jeremias investigated the causes and consequences of economic criteria for naturalization in Western Europe. His research interests comprise citizenship and migration policies in Europe, political participation, and direct democracy.