ECIT attends the VRAR Conference — 26 April 2023

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— Statement by the ECIT Foundation and Voters Without Borders —

Everyone should have the right to vote and stand in free and fair elections. Universal suffrage is a basic value to which European States and peoples aspire. Over the last two centuries, great progress has been made towards implementing the basic principles of “one-person, one-vote”, and “no taxation without representation!”. The movement began with extending the right to vote from property owners to all men. Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the symbolic election by French suffragettes on 26 April 1914. It then took far too long for women to be granted the vote, but now at least this step towards equality has been achieved. Europe is now in the middle of the third and final wave of progress towards universal suffrage. This is about the remaining disenfranchised population and the extension of the right to vote by the State to overseas citizens and to residents from other States on its own territory.

Most people think that universal suffrage has been achieved. This is because when reforms to democracy are discussed, the question of who cannot vote in the first place is all too conveniently forgotten. By definition, the populations of emigrants and immigrants are less visible, more scattered and heterogeneous, with those on the move representing some 10% of the total population. On the other hand, in the major European cities, the percentages of non-voters can be as high as 40%, thus seriously calling into question the outcome of elections as representing city life.

Claiming the right to vote is challenging even now, since non-voters receive less attention from political parties and decision makers. There is a risk that those disenfranchised become invisible, and resigned to a situation their children inherit. After all, scepticism about the value of voting can result in high rates of abstentions. Yet, the right to vote is the gateway to other rights.

Democracy has to be defended against external threats and the rise of authoritarian regimes as Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission has stressed in her State of the Union message. This should not though blind us to the fact that democracy must be defended from within and that it is its own best defence. We need as Europeans to practice what we preach: democracy is by no means perfect, but vastly preferable to its alternatives. Ours is not a static system of government, but one which has to be constantly reformed. Improving democracy from within is the best way to protect it from external threats. Vibrant and healthy democratic societies in which there is a high level of participation are more immune to outside threats.

Our emphasis is on electoral reform, whilst others including citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe are calling for representative democracy to be strengthened by its participatory counterpart and citizens’ assemblies. Both are necessary in the struggle to enlarge the franchise. Historically reforms have spread across borders, but not following a clear pattern or timeframe. This is why the work of VRAR mapping campaigns for reform is so important and has the potential to create a multiplier effect.

The third wave towards universal suffrage is about how to marry the right to vote with the right to freedom of movement within the EU or emigration to or immigration from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. What should be the priority? Should there be a step-by-step approach beginning with giving everyone the right to vote and stand in local elections where they live, or should there be such rights in all elections? There are strong arguments on both sides — but in the end, is it not a question of making progress where one can? Hence the following open-ended roadmap:

1. The process whereby a democracy allows citizens to keep their voting rights when moving abroad should be completed

Most progress has been made in response to movements of populations in the area of emigration. Citizens living abroad can vote back home in national elections. The UK is introducing “votes for life” to rid itself of a rule that its own citizens lose the right to vote after 15 years of residence abroad. Germany which applies such a rule after 25 years should follow suite. There are four others of the 27 EU countries – Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland and Malta – which disenfranchise their own citizens as soon as they leave the country. The European Commission has drawn attention to the issue that those practicing their rights to freedom of movement should not be disenfranchised, a recommendation which has fallen on deaf ears. This stain on European democracy should be removed at least for voters outside the EU in the next European elections in 2024. It would be a strong signal that citizens living abroad have a voice and that the diaspora is a source of soft power. Countries which have enfranchised their overseas citizens should examine ways such as extending postal voting or introducing electronic voting to increase turnout, which remains below the average in most elections.

2. All residents should have the right to vote and stand in local elections

2023 is the 30th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty which laid down that some 13.7 million mobile EU citizens could vote and stand in their country of residence in municipal and European elections. The legislation does not work well and should be strengthened as the European Parliament has demanded early this year. Since the EU is based on a single market and freedom of movement it has though had the merit of introducing the practice of voting where one lives, unless one chooses to vote in one’s country of origin. The Treaty encouraged campaigns at national level to extend this right from EU citizens to all residents on the grounds that those in the same situation should have the same rights. Some 23.7 third country nationals have such a right in 14 out of 27 EU Member States, but why not in the other 13? Of all the reforms to democracy aimed at increasing the franchise, this is the most self-evident given the widespread acceptance that at the local level the right to vote should be based on residence as well as on nationality. We call therefore on mayors all over Europe to sign the VRAR declaration and to encourage a new movement towards universal suffrage at the local level.

3. Electoral rights should be extended from the local to the city and regional levels

Since the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, the role of the regions and cities has become still more important acquiring greater responsibility for local public services in order to achieve economies of scale. It is increasingly difficult to justify allowing electoral rights for EU citizens and all residents at the municipal and not the city level. The cities of Europe play the major role in integrating migrants and benefit from their contribution to the economy. Whilst some cities have found ways to extend voting rights to EU citizens and third country nationals, most are unable to take such a decision which is reserved for national authorities. The Brussel Region and New York City have voted recently in favour of extending the franchise, but it is not sure that they will be able to implement their decisions. The way forward is to accept the special role that cities have in democracy and therefore delegate to them more responsibility for electoral reforms. Inspiration should be taken from Switzerland where Cantons can decide on the suffrage.

4. Universal suffrage means the right to vote in all elections and referendums for all EU citizens and residents

We believe that whilst reformers have advocated a step-by-step approach to granting political rights to those on the move, those concerned do not regard partial political rights as a substitute for being treated as fully equal and still feel under-represented. This raises the question of whether the right to vote especially in national elections should be conditional on having the nationality of the host country. Should it not be enough to be paying taxes there, sending children to the same schools as voters and being recognised for one’s contribution to society? Should not political rights be based as much on residence as on nationality? For many migrant workers, naturalisation is not considered as an option since they are not necessarily planning to stay in the country. Easier access to citizenship will never be enough on its own to secure universal suffrage but should nevertheless be encouraged. EU Citizenship itself should become more inclusive as ECIT is claiming with its proposals for a Statute. There are some encouraging signs that access to national citizenship may be becoming less restrictive, whilst allowing at the same time for dual citizenship. There should be a European debate on the relationship between citizenship and democracy.

5. The European election campaign is an opportunity to promote universal suffrage

Political parties and candidates ought to raise the question of why third country nationals who are equally affected by the outcome of these elections as EU citizens in May or June 2024 are not allowed to vote in their country of residence. Voting rights day on 26 April 2024 could be an opportunity for the first-ever symbolic election on a European scale, marking the 110th anniversary of the symbolic election by the women of France. Such a European symbolic election held on-line and on the same day in a number of cities would be a way to impress on the EU the need to achieve real reforms to European democracy and not just unite to combat the external threats. The symbolic election could be a test of one such substantial reform demanded by the European Parliament, but which will not be implemented in time for the European elections. All EU citizens and residents should be asked to cast two votes: one for a national list and another for a European list to elect a European constituency.

Finally, such a roadmap needs the support of a critical mass especially among young people. Opinion polls show consistently that public opinion is ahead of most political parties when it comes to extending the franchise. This needs to be followed up however by more active citizen and civil society engagement, which needs more resources not just the dedication of volunteers. Democracy is on the political agenda — it is our task to make sure that the real and basic issues are on the agenda whenever it is discussed.