Citizenship exams and political institutions

Citizenship exams and political institutions

There has been a lot of talk about the exams to acquire Greek citizenship by individuals who legally emigrated to Greece during the first wave of migration in the years after 1989 and who have lived continuously in the country over a long period, usually more than two decades.

Throughout the period leading up to the citizenship exams, and the period after, interpretations of and statements about the test were rife – and at varied levels of credibility and severity – concerning the rationale of the relevant law and the “real” goals and motives of the government, and specifically the Interior Ministry. 

Anyone belonging to groups that oppose the procedures outlined by the new law should look at what is going on in France (Citizen’s Handbook), the Netherlands (civic integration exams), Germany (naturalization test), Spain (nationality test conducted by the Cervantes Institute), the United Kingdom (Life in the UK Test), the United States (citizenship test) or Russia (Citizenship Exam).

All these countries, and many more, in addition to the expected volume of bureaucratic paperwork, the Byzantine legal framework and the various classifications of bestowing citizenship, require candidates to undergo a rather uncharitable test comprising questions (circa 25, with a pass mark of over 60%), related to the candidate’s mastery of the local language, the history of the country, its culture, its geography and the workings of the country’s political institutions.

The rationale behind the exams is obvious: A new member of the political community must be in a position to understand and use the local language, history, culture and the workings of the political institutions with ease. They must be in the position to show that they are at least aware of the basic characteristics of the country they wish to become a citizen of. Anyone who has even the least experience of how the previous system used by Greece functioned, with candidates being interviewed by a citizenship committee, will remember that many of those who finally succeeded could not identify the Peloponnese on a map. 

The necessary grasp of reality to acquire Greek citizenship includes, even if it is only roughly, an understanding of the workings of the political institutions. This is obviously a crucial parameter. Anyone acquiring Greek citizenship will have the right to participate in all electoral processes and shape the final result. Just like everyone else. And as with everyone else, it is required that they have a minimum understanding of how the political system functions, the relevant parts of the Constitution, the differences between the political parties and others.

Obviously we are not asking them to be in the position to apply for a seat on the Supreme Court or become election specialists. But, on the other hand, the very notion of a citizen and their participation in public life requires them to be informed. In this way, the participation in the exam itself and the study of the (posted) test questions and answers contribute to the candidates’ education.

In the end, granting Greek citizenship (and European citizenship with whatever that entails for now, given the start of discussions on the “future of Europe”) cannot be regarded as some sort of “flag of opportunity,” as some naively appear to want it to be, nor can it be a way to counter the population decline in Greece, as others claim. 

Expert analysts have complained about the difficulty of the test questions and answers, claiming that, among others, “they are beyond the knowledge of the average Greek citizen.” It must be noted that candidates will have to answer just six questions during the exam, which deal with political institutions, as well as the fact that all 100 possible questions are published three months before the exams.

In comparison to other countries, the six questions are drawn from a pool of already published 100 questions, which have also been posted online, something that absolutely limits accusations as to the difficulty of the answers and the trial of intentions that has been unsuccessfully attempted. They do, however, require a decent amount of preparation by the candidates and form a small but decisive step in the right direction, specifically the creation of an organized, transparent and understandable framework of rules and regulations for bestowing Greek citizenship. If, however, anyone still has doubts, they are free to answer the British or the French or the American questionnaire. 

M.I. Tsinisizelis is a professor at the University of Athens.

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