On becoming a Latvian citizen: Part 1 - Motivation

I looked at the dead body on the sidewalk just ahead of me.

"Perhaps Latvia operates a 'one out, one in' policy?" I thought. It was a rather cruel joke, but probably one that was more at my own expense than the expense of whoever it was up ahead, now being covered up and loaded into the back of an ambulance to begin their final journey.

A fairly strange sequence of events had led to this point, so the sight of a corpse halfway through my citizenship exam did not seem particularly bizarre. Maybe it was a good omen. Maybe it was a bad one.

The sequence began almost three years earlier. The United Kingdom's "Brexit" referendum took place on Thursday, June 23, 2016. The result was clear on Friday June 24. After a weekend of general cursing, on the morning of Monday June 27 I walked into the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PMLP) in Cēsis, the city nearest to where I live and said I wanted to become a Latvian citizen.

My arrival caused a fair amount of head-scratching. I imagine they are more used to dealing with work permits for Ukrainians and Belarusians, or renewing the passports of people who happen to be Latvian citizens already without having to do anything in particular to prove it. Cēsis is regarded as one of the most Latvian of Latvian cities with the sound of the Russian language in the streets relatively rare, unless you venture into the cheap clothes and shoe market, which seems to operate as a Russian cultural outpost.

"What is your citizenship now?" asked the lady behind the PMLP desk.

"British."

"But Britain is in the European Union," she said.

"Yes, but in the future it won't be," I replied. She looked a bit puzzled, understandably being less interested in the UK's domestic upheaval than I was, particularly immediately after Midsummer weekend.

I left a few minutes later with a booklet explaining the naturalization procedure and the various documents I would need to assemble in order to apply and start a journey that nearly 150,000 people have already completed since 1995.   

My own motivation for wanting Latvian citizenship was very simple. My wife and children are Latvian citizens. When my children were born we chose Latvian citizenship for them because we intended them to grow up in Latvia. Plus there was the small matter that if I wanted them to be registered as British I would have to pay quite a large sum to have a notice pinned on a board inside the British embassy where no-one could read it, announcing their arrivals into the world and, frankly, I didn't have money to waste on such a thing. That was a time when I had developed considerable skill making soup from the squashed tomatoes thrown out at the end of the day round the back of Rīga Central market.

Besides, Latvia and the UK were both European Union member states, so it didn't really make any difference whether someone had a British or Latvian passport, did it?

The Brexit vote ruined that happy assumption. Suddenly there was the very real prospect that in future my family would operate under one set of rules and I would have to operate under another. My confidence in the government of the United Kingdom to act sensibly was zero, particularly given the spiteful, ignorant and xenophobic sentiments expressed during the Brexit campaign, and with every passing day post-Brexit, zero confidence was revealed to be an extremely generous over-estimation of the actual abilities of the British political establishment.

Put simply, I was not going to let people like Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Davis come between me and my family. The thought of being at the mercy of such a bunch and their pathetic claims on posterity was nauseating and infuriating.

I had lived in Latvia since 2007. My home, my business, my job, most of my friends were here. My bank account was here, I paid my taxes here. If being Latvian citizens was good enough for the rest of my family and my friends, it was certainly good enough for me. While it may sound slightly sentimental, I was also acutely aware that, given all the above, Latvia had been very generous to me. I was grateful. Perhaps it would be appropriate to show that gratitude by committing to the country in a proper way?

The idea of obtaining citizenship was something I had toyed with as a pipe dream that could always be postponed to some future date. Suddenly the date had arrived and postponement had transformed into an imperative.

The helpful PMLP booklet told me I required the following documents: an application for naturalization; proof of identity; proof of income/employment; proof of residency and a passport photograph. It sounded straightforward. Then, when those had been accepted, I would be able to sit the naturalization examinations to test my knowledge of Latvian history, the constitution, the language and the national anthem. If that all went well, citizenship might be just a matter of months away! Since a rule change in 2013, dual citizenship was permitted with other EU and NATO member states, plus a few others, so provided the UK didn't decide that it was on a roll and walk out of NATO, I would not have to ditch my British passport.  

Having foreseen the ineptitude of the UK government with such crystalline clarity, and laughed at their naive assumptions about Brexit being a simple process in which they held all the cards, I should perhaps have paused to consider that I might be subject to similar, if less extreme, failings. The "cards" in my case would turn out to be a few additional documents I would need to get hold of, plus an all-too-familiar over-estimation of my own abilities.  

But at least the process had begun...

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