By Riham Alkousaa
BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany's cabinet on Wednesday passed a draft bill to ease the citizenship law, hoping a faster track to German nationality will attract skilled migrants to plug chronic labour shortages holding back Europe's biggest economy.
Some experts caution that progress may be slow, noting parts of Germany's administrative machinery are already creaking under a big backlog of existing citizenship applications.
The draft, first presented in May, shortens the required residency time for migrants to five years from eight years and to three if migrants make so-called special integration efforts, such as speaking German very well or doing voluntary work.
The new law also allows dual citizenship, and grants automatic naturalisation to children born in Germany to a parent who has lived in the country for more than five years.
Germany, like industrialised countries around the world, is facing deep labour shortages, particularly in skilled high-growth sectors, which are taking their toll on an economy that could yet face a recession this year.
Official estimates suggest Germany's ageing society will be short seven million skilled workers by 2035.
German citizenship is not a condition of employment for migrants, but Germany wants to establish itself as a migration destination for foreign talent, like the U.S. and Canada, and Berlin hopes the prospect of a smoother, quicker path to German nationality will attract skilled migrants.
The draft bill will also simplify the path to a German passport for thousands of foreign "guest workers" brought in decades ago from Turkey and southern Europe to rebuild Germany's post-war economy. It will do this by lowering German language requirements and by withdrawing a naturalisation test.
But with German authorities already overwhelmed by thousands of backlogged naturalisation applications, some experts doubt the reforms can quickly achieve their main goal of luring global talent to fill hundreds of thousands of vacancies.
"We see very clearly that the law actually will offer relatively liberal regulations, but that these regulations will only exist on paper," Holger Kolb, a researcher at The Expert Council on Integration and Migration, told Reuters.
Kolb said similar problems with long waiting times for appointments were also hindering Germany's parallel reforms in related areas such as visas for skilled workers from abroad.
LONG WAITING TIMES
Staff shortages in the public sector, whose jobs are mostly not as competitive as other sectors, a lack of digitisation and the impact of several related migration reforms that were passed this year were overwhelming immigration authorities, Kolb added.
"You can change a law relatively quickly, but upgrading, digitising and reorganizing an administration, that will be difficult," he said.
Germany's naturalization rate of 1.1% is well below the European Union's average of 2%, according to the interior ministry, which says this reflects the reluctance of foreigners to give up their old citizenship for German nationality - a predicament the new bill addresses.
Migrants complain of long waits even for a first citizenship consultation appointment. But not everyone is deterred.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015/2016 are now eligible for the red passport, largely contributing to a rise in naturalisation applications, a study by Mediendienst Intergation, an online portal that collects data on immigration and asylum, showed in March.
The number of applications has been growing faster than the number of naturalizations processed by authorities and has doubled within a year in the cities of Cologne and Dresden and even tripled in Bielefeld, the study showed.
Waiting times for applications vary between one year in cities like Hamburg and Munich to up to 36 months in Chemnitz, the study, which surveyed migration authorities in 23 of the most populous cities in Germany, found.
Asked about the long waiting times, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said handling applications and other administrative work by migration authorities was an issue regulated by federal states, adding that waiting times varied between regions.
Tariq Tabbara, a citizenship law professor at Berlin University of Economics and Law, said the new law contained new regulations that would probably make the process even more complicated, such as stricter conditions for ensuring the person can independently support themselves financially, a requirement that is already subject to lengthy scrutiny by officials.
"Even with this reform in Germany, access to citizenship is still much easier in traditional immigration countries like Canada. In the end it may be even more difficult," Tabbara told Reuters.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Editing by William Maclean)