I’m calling it right now: the level of Dutch required to pass the civic integration exam (inburgeringsexamen) if you want to apply for a permanent residence permit or Dutch citizenship is not going to be raised by the Dutch government to B1 in January, writes lawyer Jeremy Bierbach.
At my law firm, I have been fielding numerous panicked phone calls from migrants who identify as ‘expats’ (MWIE, a term I just now invented, because ‘expat’ is not an actual objective term of Dutch immigration law).
Non-EU citizen migrants who identify as ‘expats’ are usually in the possession of non-permanent residence permits for work-related purposes such as the kennismigrant or arbeid als zelfstandige visa, or for the purpose of staying as the family member of someone with such a visa (verblijf bij familie- of gezinslid).
By the way, British citizens who arrived before Brexit are subject to a different legal regime, the Withdrawal Agreement, which is not subject to any changes the Dutch government or legislature can make, and they will never be required to pass an exam to get a permanent residence permit based on the WA, so they can ignore most of the rest of this article.
I’ve got news for MWIE. The government did indeed originally say in 2021 that the level would be raised to B1 in 2022; but then it backed down via a statement on the IND website, and never actually said that the level would be raised in 2023, only that it would not yet be raised in 2022.
In December 2022, the government (again via the website of the IND) published a news item meekly admitting that the level would not be raised in 2023, either. As far as I can tell, this seems to be the only source of the belief that the government will raise the level in 2024.
Regulations need changing
So this is why I am calling it now. Changing the Dutch level required is not something that can be done with a flick of a switch. There are actually several regulations which would have to be changed to make this possible.
And while regulations can be changed or passed by a unanimous decision of the cabinet and enacted by a Royal Decree signed by the king and countersigned by the responsible minister, there is usually quite a bit of public review of proposed changes that precede this enactment.
Usually, this happens in the form of the responsible minister notifying parliament of the proposed changes, or putting up a proposal on the internet for comments. I have combed the parliamentary records and found no evidence of of the relevant minister notifying parliament of any proposed change to the current regulations.
The only changes to regulations that took place in recent years are changes to the Besluit naturalisatietoets (the regulation defining the civic integration requirements for becoming a Dutch citizen by naturalisation) and the Vreemdelingenbesluit 2000 (the regulation defining the civic integration requirements for upgrading to a stronger residence permit).
These changes were made on 25 January 2022 to account for the passage into law of the Wet inburgering 2021 (Wi2021), the new law on civic integration that was shepherded through the legislative process, two governments ago, by former social affairs minister Wouter Koolmees who has now left politics to run the Dutch railway system NS.
This law is a clear expression of the intention to make all migrants, ideally, demonstrate knowledge of Dutch at a B1 level. But for now, the only people that that law applies to are so-called inburgeringsplichtige migrants which means people who were granted asylum or issued residence permits as partners of Dutch citizens or permanent residence permit holders after 1 January 2022.
Under the new law, meant to require the higher level but also meant to be applied with more of a human touch, migrants subject to its requirements are summoned to a meeting with an integration specialist at their local municipality as soon as possible after they get their residence permit.
A ‘plan for integration and participation’ (PIP) will be established based on the migrant’s educational and personal background. Ideally, the migrant will be shepherded into a programme of language learning aiming for B1-level Dutch, or otherwise a vocational education diploma in a Dutch-language curriculum.
They will also be encouraged to find (volunteer) work. Only if it turns out that they will be unable to learn the language at B1 level, due to lacking basic educational background or other reasons, will they be dropped down to a programme aimed at giving them minimal survival skills in Dutch society.
So, to gain permanent residence permit or citizenship, the only change made to the regulations has been to add that while an inburgeringsdiploma passed under the new law will be valid for such an upgrade, an inburgeringsdiploma based on the old law, remains perfectly valid for the upgrade as well.
That’s the Wet inburgering 2013 (Wi2013) law, which requires A2-level Dutch (along with the silly ‘Knowledge of Dutch Society’ exam and the rather more obnoxiously patronising ‘Orientation on the Dutch Employment Market’ exam, which most persons with a job or a business can be exempted from).
Not yet in place
For now, niet-inburgeringsplichtige migrants, i.e. migrants who are perfectly free never to have to take the exam if they don’t want an upgrade (generally, MWIE), still can take the exam based on the Wi2013.
The justice ministry even admitted, in the memorandum accompanying the 2022 rules, that ‘the system is not yet in place’ to change the requirements for niet-inburgeringsplichtigen, and that it would require creating a separate system for civic integration requirements for those persons.
The record shows no politicians have actually really thought about exactly how to implement the standard of the Wi2021 for MWIE. It hasn’t been discussed in parliament. This is an NS train without a driver, dead on the track.
An entire system would have to be put into place to account for each and every individual’s strengths and weaknesses, because there is no way that ‘B1 Dutch’ could simply be imposed as a rigid requirement for everyone who wishes to apply for a permanent residence permit or Dutch citizenship.
In fact, as far as the default and strongest type of permanent residence permit goes, the ‘long-term resident of the EU’ (langdurig ingezetene-EU) permit, the Dutch government is required to comply with EU law, which mandates ‘consideration of specific individual circumstances, such as age, illiteracy or level of education’ in setting the civic integration requirements to become a long-term resident.
The coalition agreement of the last government, Rutte IV, did announce the intention to explore such a tailor-made system for upgrades in immigration or citizenship status. However, it looks like the process was never started before the government fell due to the squabbling between the coalition parties and Mark Rutte’s intransigence on the matter of asylum.
So that’s why I’m calling it: if you are a MWIE, you will still be able to take the ‘old school’ inburgeringsexamen at A2 level well into the New Year. In any case, it seems very clear, based on the current regulations in force, that if you already obtained the diploma, it will also remain valid for future upgrades.
If the recent elections have made you nervous, then there’s no time like the present to take the steps, including taking the inburgering tests to get your long-term resident permit.
I assure you that the long-term resident permit means an unconditional right to live in the Netherlands (and facilitated access to most other EU countries) that can never be taken away from you as long as you live here — short of the Netherlands exiting the EU – in which case it won’t be any fun to live here anymore anyway.
Jeremy Bierbach is an immigration specialist with Franssen Advocaten in Amsterdam.
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