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Britons in Berlin look for ways to stay put as Brexit looms

BERLIN (Reuters) - As the United Kingdom prepares to trigger its divorce from the European Union, many Britons who have made Berlin their home are scrambling to get German citizenship as they try to ease worries about whether they can stay after Brexit.

Pedestrian walk past the "Broken English" store, which is selling British chocolates, snacks and souvenir items featuring the Union Jack in Berlin, Germany, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Around 100,000 British nationals live across Germany, benefiting from the freedom of EU citizens to reside in any of the bloc’s 28 member states they choose.

However, Prime Minister Theresa May is due to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty on Wednesday, opening negotiations over the country’s departure which will deprive Britons of automatic residency rights in the bloc - unless the two sides do a deal to preserve them.

Elizabeth Wood, a 43-year-old who moved to Berlin with her boyfriend eight years ago, is hoping to become naturalised after Britons’ vote for Brexit last year caught her unprepared.

“We all weren’t expecting it. So, now it’s just panic trying to make back-up plans - just in case the worst actually happens,” said Wood, who works with online startup businesses and whose two daughters were born in Germany.

She is preparing for a citizenship test, for which there is a three-month waiting list, on April 29. She needs to pass a German language test, prove she does not need benefit payments and fill in lots of paperwork.

There are no national figures for how many Britons have applied for German citizenship. However, a survey by newspaper Die Welt showed 480 Britons in three cities with large expatriate communities - Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main - applied last year, up from just 79 in 2015.

Across the country, 622 British citizens were naturalised in 2015, the Federal Statistics Office said.

People who have been living in Germany for at least eight years can apply for citizenship, provided they already have unlimited residency rights and meet a number of conditions. Those married to German nationals can be naturalised after being legally resident in the country for three years, again as long as they fulfil certain conditions.

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Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said securing the rights of Britons living elsewhere in the EU - and of EU citizens living in Britain - is paramount. May has said she wants the issue dealt with as a priority, while insisting a solution should be reciprocal.

Dale Carr, who owns a store in Berlin selling British chocolates, snacks and souvenir items featuring the Union Jack flag, is desperate to retain the EU citizenship rights that she calls an “incredible gift” and so has applied for German citizenship.

“I have no faith that we are anywhere on anybody’s priority lists ... Has anybody contacted us? No! Anyone from the embassies come out to talk to expats in Berlin? I don’t know - if they have, I’ve not heard of it,” she said.

Others who have not been in Germany long enough to get citizenship by themselves are thinking about creative solutions.

“I am opening myself up to a marriage, if you know anyone who would like to get married to a gentleman with an afro in exchange for some type of passport,” joked British-Zimbabwean Mhlanguli Ncube, who has been in Berlin for three years.

Other Britons cling to the hope that their country never leaves, despite the 52-48 percent referendum vote in favour.

Graeme du Plessis, a 24 year-old who has been in Berlin for 18 months, said he was still “living in a la la land” thinking Brexit might not come to pass.

But du Plessis, who comes from the town of Epsom just outside London, said he was not necessarily planning to remain in Berlin forever and would probably not go to great lengths to stay if there were problems.

Gavin Watson hopes his home country of Scotland, which voted against Brexit in the June referendum, can achieve independence from the United Kingdom and remain in the EU.

Watson, 32, feels settled in Berlin and wants to stay. He recently bought a dog, lives with his girlfriend and works at a British start-up firm.

However, Scottish voters already rejected independence in 2014 and May says now is not the time for another referendum, so he does not rule out seeking German citizenship.

“Nobody has got any answers or ideas about what happens to people who live in Europe or EU nationals who live in the UK... so I think at some point I have to look into it,” he said.

Additional reporting and writing by Michelle Martin; editing by David Stamp