Political Rights FAQ
The idea came from the ECIT Foundation, which has produced a Draft Statute for this transnational citizenship of rights, participation and belonging. Every year, ECIT has organised a conference which brings together civil society activists, researchers and policy makers. A consensus emerged at these events about the need for a reform making EU Citizenship more popular and resilient, to ensure that freedom of movement goes together with full, not just partial, political rights.
EU citizens have the right to vote and stand as candidates in local and European elections but not in regional and national elections, or to participate in referendums in their country of residence. These partial electoral rights for EU citizens are not fit for purpose and at least the European Commission has agreed that they should be reformed. However, we believe that these rights will remain underused until EU citizens have the right to vote and stand in the elections which really count — the national ones. We also stress that since EU Citizenship was created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 as an evolutionary first step, it is high time to consider adding new rights.
Taking into account transnational mobility in the democratic process is a challenge for European Member States, and for this reason the final goal to achieve is a real, European universal suffrage. There are 4 different options to be pondered:
a) EU citizens should apply for the nationality of the Member State where they live to be able to vote there in national elections;
b) EU citizens should have the right anyway to vote where they live on the grounds of “no taxation without representation” and equal treatment with nationals;
c) they should retain the right to vote back in their country of origin and in no case be disenfranchised just because they have used their European rights to freedom of movement;
d) they should have a choice between options b) and c) as they do for the existing rights to participate in municipal and European elections.
We prefer option d).
B. WHY A EUROPEAN CITIZENS’ INITIATIVE (ECI)?
The right of EU citizens to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and is part of the chapter on Union citizenship and non-discrimination. Using this instrument to strengthen European Citizenship is therefore appropriate. Demanding a new European right is never easy! Political rights are the gold standard of any citizenship and the gateway to defending other rights or obtaining new ones. However, only 6% of ECIs launched so far have reached the 1 million target and many fell at the first hurdle and could not collect a single signature being judged by the Commission as outside its legal competence. If you get the go ahead, the citizens’ committee has one year to collect the signatures meeting minimum thresholds in at least 7 of the 27 Member States. Moreover, a previous ECI Let me vote failed to collect more than 3,500 signatures, so we never thought we could get 1 million. Nevertheless, the total reached of 8,762 was less than expected.
The main explanation is that at least one third of those who did sign the ECI were resident in another Member State. Thanks to data received from the Commission, it became clear that the basis for signatures is the mobile population of 13.7 million not the 446 million. It was also a problem that 23.7 million third-country nationals in the EU cannot sign an ECI. One of the main challenges facing us or any other organisation trying again is how to make the appeal relevant to the vast majority of the population who already have the right to vote and probably imagine that universal suffrage is achieved in Europe. More evidence showing the extent of the problem in some of our big cities would help. There is also the problem that the right to vote is a means of access to other rights or to help defend those that exist. It may lack the immediacy of issues to which people respond at the click of a mouse. It is also recognised as a complex issue which is difficult to resolve. One way to give greater immediacy and sense of urgency to a new version of the ECI would be to make signature collection coincide with a number of elections, including elections to the European Parliament.
We took an unusual step. ECIT participated in a project organised by European Alternatives in the run-up to the European elections in May 2019, involving caravans with young people touring around Europe. This was the kind of project which led to a 20-year record turnout, especially among young voters. At our 2019 Annual Conference, young people suggested turning the ECI over to them. It did make sense to ask the new generation to take the lead.
Setting up and running an ECI is an advanced form of active European citizenship education. To succeed, you have to take the initiative and be creative whilst at the same time meeting the regulatory requirements. Those who go through the process come out knowing a lot more, not just about how the EU Institutions and decision-making processes work, but also with broader cultural knowledge of public authorities and civil society across Member States. The process of running an ECI requires multi-tasking and bringing together research, communication and advocacy skills. ECIT recruited a taskforce of Erasmus students working first as a team in our open space offices close to the European Parliament and then remotely when the pandemic and travel restrictions put an end to working together in one location. We would still recommend this approach to anyone trying with a new ECI, provided there is support from at least one full-time project manager and access to professional services, especially for multi-media communication.
We submitted the ECI in January 2020 and waited for it to be registered. The Commission decision (C(2020)1298 final of 4 March) was very encouraging, as it concluded that all our requests were within its legal competence. Then, a preparatory period of 6 months followed, before the launch on 1 September. Being able to decide the launch date with the Commission is an advantage.
The process is transparent. If you go to the ECI portal and click on “Support Voters Without Borders” or any other ECI you can see what the demands are. From there, you can find out how signatures were built up in all 27 EU countries. Our experience has been largely positive even though more could be done to support organisers and make ECIs better known. There have been regulatory and technical improvements, but the administrative culture of the Commission, with which this instrument fits uneasily, has yet to follow.
C. WHAT PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE SO FAR?
In theory, ECIs should encourage debate across borders and the creation of a European public sphere. The taskforce has been handicapped by the ban across Europe on face-to-face and even “hybrid“ events, with everything being online. We had to agree with the police for example to postpone open-air events in front of the European Parliament in Brussels after our launch event on 1 September 2020. We tried to organise several events in 2021, but nearly all ended up being online. Because of the impact of the pandemic, the Commission did give us more time to collect signatures with the deadline of 11 September 2021 postponed until 11 December 2021, and then June 2022. We were grateful for these extensions. On the other hand, this was a particularly difficult issue on which to work only remotely and expect people to support without any chance of face-to-face debate.
Yes, there is a groundswell of movements campaigning for political rights and changes in voting practices precisely because of the pandemic. Accepting restrictions to our basic freedoms of movement and association should not be at the expense of our political rights and the health of our democracies. The debate has built up about reforms aimed at making it easier to choose when, where and how one votes: this is reflected in a 35-page report by the taskforce. Because of COVID-19, some elections have been postponed, others have gone ahead in difficult circumstances. More reliance on postal and e-voting is inevitable but also raises concerns about electoral fraud. We therefore believe that this is the right time to introduce reforms. The annual reports by an organisation called V-Dem show the balance has tipped in favour of authoritarian regimes across the world but also that pro-democracy protests are growing.
D. HAVE THERE BEEN ANY SUCCESSES?
The taskforce has scored success under each of the broad tasks for any ECI:
- Research. The taskforce was able to build on the preparatory work by the ECIT Foundation and learn from its Board Members. Evidence of disenfranchisement has been collected from individuals to back up the case for the reforms proposed, and examples of best and worst practice collected from recent elections.
- Communication. Over 700 Facebook groups of EU citizens living in other Member States have been contacted and a partnership of over 50 national and European organisations created. Over a dozen MEPs have attended online events organised by the ECIT Foundation.
- Advocacy. If an ECI is an agenda setting instrument the taskforce was already able to help set the agenda before even reaching the end of the process! The Commission has accepted the case for reform of the directives to vote and stand in municipal and European elections in its legislative work programme for 2021. Its 2020 Citizenship Report published on 15 December goes further by recognising the issue of disenfranchisement in national elections.
Our main handicap was that awareness of ECIs among the general public is extremely low. Communicating beyond the limited audience of European networks and stakeholders about this participatory democracy instrument hits a glass ceiling. This is especially the case for a taskforce which was not a well-resourced lobby even though networking among Erasmus students offers the potential to break through. The public sphere, especially on issues of democracy, remains primarily national. For this ECI, there was no ready-made network of like-minded powerful national associations to collect signatures. The right to vote and issues of representative democracy are not fashionable with funders, and many see them as too political. The emphasis is on what happens between elections and projects on participatory democracy or citizens’ assemblies. Both versions of democracy are important and should complement each other, but in the end, it is still the representative version which counts. Most of us recognise that democracy is better than its alternatives, but far from perfect. Despite this, there is often a blind spot where civil society and ordinary citizens should be addressing reforms to improve the system.
A basis of support has been created for our initiative in the Commission and European Parliament as well as among European stakeholders. If there is a next time, we need to take the issue of voting rights beyond the limited reach of European networks, create a network of national correspondents across EU-27 and set up campaign groups in major cities. Prominent European media have reported about Voters Without Borders, including The Economist, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and La Vanguardia, as well as several online European journals. However, the taskforce will have to develop more stories and activities to attract far more multimedia attention. EU citizens living and working in other Member States or outside the Union are those who benefit most from our proposals, but they are also scattered and difficult to reach as a group. Here, the mapping of Facebook groups already done creates a platform for making much more use of social media. We also need to connect to a broader audience of young people who see freedom of movement and the related European rights as important for their future. Maybe the run up to the European elections in 2024 will be an opportunity to mobilise young people as was the case at the last elections in 2019. During that campaign, it was largely due to young people that a decline in turnout was reversed and participation reached over 50%.
E. HOW DID THE ECI PROPOSE TO REFORM EXISTING RIGHTS AND EXTEND THEM?
The Commission, which is already committed to this objective, “would have the competence to adopt a proposal for a legal act… on the basis of Article 22TFEU” (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – decision of 4 March). In practice, this means revising directives 93/109/EC and 94/80/EC on European and municipal elections which date back to the period immediately after the Maastricht Treaty. These directives are too loosely drafted and cannot properly respect national differences in the organisation of elections. Of all the directives and regulations relating to freedom of movement, these are the ones which work least well. Although the Commission report on the 2019 European elections does not give complete figures for the turnout of mobile EU citizens, it is estimated that only about 10% voted in their country of residence and 20% in their country of origin, and very few stood for election. However, when questioned most people would prefer to vote in their country of residence: this contrast with what actually happens, suggesting that there are significant obstacles to doing so. From the stories collected many people received no information about their right to vote, received the information too late or failed to register because of administrative procedures. The persistent low turnout in the European elections by the group arguably most affected by them is a signal that legislation is not working at a time when general turnout has increased for the first time in 20 years to reach over 50% and more among young people.
These are spelt out in the 35-page report on the following lines:
- Clear obligations on the electoral authorities to provide personalised and general information to EU citizens. Information must be provided in good time and measures taken to remove administrative and other obstacles to voter registration. Registration should be automatic, although citizens would still have the choice of voting back in one’s country of origin. Similar reforms should apply to candidates.
- Creation of a help desk devoted to cross-border electoral rights. Just as the US has a federal voting assistance programme, the EU should set up a focal point for information, advice and problem solving. Existing mechanisms such as SOLVIT are good models but political rights are a special area. The electoral authorities are already working together with the Commission. If they can combat double voting, electoral fraud and cyber attacks on the democratic process, they should be able to work together to encourage people to vote across borders in the first place.
- Encouragement to share and spread reforms to make voting easier across borders. Due to the need to reconcile social distancing in pandemic times with high turnout during elections, progress in e-voting, postal voting and other forms of remote voting is already on the agenda. Such reforms are particularly relevant for EU citizens living in other EU countries or the rest of the world.
In addition to the Advocacy Report, Voters Without Borders has made detailed proposals and participated in hearings with MEPs drafting opinions on Commission proposals for reform. There is no doubt that the messages from the ECI organisers will be supported at least in the European Parliament.
In relation to our aim that EU citizens should have the right to vote in their country of residence or origin for all elections and referendums, the Commission confirms in its decision of 4 March that it “would have the competence to adopt a proposal for a legal act in that area on the basis of Article 25(2)TFEU”. This article (see above) shows that EU Citizenship is an evolutionary process requiring the Commission to produce a tri-annual report and present any proposals for new rights. Such proposals require the assent of the European Parliament: this means that it cannot change the proposal but only say “yes” or “no”. In addition, it requires unanimity in the Council of Ministers and follow-up ratification procedures in some Member States. The Commission has yet to make use of this article, which is a less cumbersome process than attempting to revise the Treaties.
In its 2020 Citizenship Report, the Commission refers to our ECI and to the fact that 60% of those consulted in the run-up to the report were in favour of cross-border voting in national elections. This is a step forward, although there is no mention of regional elections and referendums. The Commission may favour a step-by-step approach, rather than our demand for a European electoral law covering full voting rights.
F. SHOULD FULL VOTING RIGHTS NOT BE RESERVED FOR NATIONAL CITIZENS?
Yes, and to an extent it has become easier to take this step in the EU, since double nationality among Member States is generally allowed. However, there are situations within the EU and particularly in the rest of the world where naturalisation would mean loss of the nationality of the country of origin. This is surely too heavy a price to pay to achieve electoral rights. Another objection is that within the EU procedures for obtaining nationality are very divergent, often reflecting history and former colonial ties to discriminate between welcome and less welcome foreigners. Conditions for naturalisation are divergent, requiring different types of family ties and periods of prior residence ranging from 5 to 12 years. Making full voting rights dependent on being a citizen would mean subjecting free movers to a lottery. There is no chance that Member States would be prepared to harmonise their conditions for acquiring nationality. Indeed, whilst the Maastricht Treaty provided for the right to vote and stand for EU citizens in local and European elections, a declaration attached to the Treaty excluded from its scope questions of nationality.
You may be thinking of acquiring a golden passport but that is a solution only available to the 1% super rich! There is no evidence that EU citizens will opt for this solution to achieve their rights to vote. Freedom of movement is a disincentive: many EU citizens plan to spend a limited time in the host country before their careers and family ties may take them to a number of different countries without having to obtain a work permit. Another disincentive is EU Citizenship itself because in many respects it does secure all the rights you need except the political ones. It is better than dual nationality in some situations, as it offers the protection of European law to solve cross-border problems, rather than the protection of two separate jurisdictions.
So why apply for national citizenship when you have the right to equal treatment with citizens of your country of residence, when EU Treaties and legislation give you and your family rights to reside, recognition of your professional qualifications and access to social security and other benefits? Brexit has provided evidence that this problem of voting rights will not be solved by naturalisation, even when EU Citizenship itself is under threat. There have been reports of increases in applications among UK citizens for naturalisation in EU-27 as Irish or German citizens for example, in order to keep their EU Citizenship. However, actual numbers remain low with only 1% of 66 million British citizens having the nationality of an EU Member State.
One general argument in favour of our proposals is that having the right to vote in some elections but not others does not work and is a source of real confusion and itself a reason for low turnout. The 13.7 million EU citizens living in another Member State only make up 1% of the electorate, so the overall impact of our proposals would be low for a huge step forward in European democracy. Nevertheless, the patterns of freedom of movement within the EU are very uneven: freedom of movement is concentrated on certain trajectories and major cities. The impact can be greater for smaller countries with large diaspora populations too. For all their faults, the directives covering the existing rights have shown that it is possible to take these uneven effects into account and provide for safeguards, for example where EU citizens represent over 20% of the population. Our proposals are therefore feasible.
Another important lesson from the existing directives is that they do provide for choice between voting in one’s country of residence or in one’s country of origin whilst avoiding double voting. Choice is an ally in our goal of achieving universal suffrage. To those who claim that many newly arrived EU citizens are not sufficiently integrated to vote where they live, the answer can be that they should then vote back home. To those back home who say that EU citizens who have left are too out of touch with the political realities to vote there, the answer can be that they should vote in their country of residence. Choice also limits the impact of extending the suffrage on particular regions or countries and shares it across borders. In practice, many EU citizens remain connected to what is happening back home and are involved with public life where they live thanks to cross-border media. In the future, the directives on the right to vote and stand in local and European elections based on the principle of mutual recognition of electoral rights could become a model for the rest of the world and progress towards universal suffrage. Reform of the existing directives so that they work properly is therefore important not just for those directly affected.
G. WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS FOR EXTENDING EXISTING RIGHTS ?
Our background paper submitted with the ECI and translated into all EU languages on the ECI portal contains our main arguments which the taskforce of Erasmus students then developed in its 35-page report translated in French and German. The reports of the events and conferences on the Voters Without Borders website contain much more.
Extending electoral rights for EU citizens from local to regional elections would catch up with developments since the Maastricht Treaty was signed 27 years ago. Cities and regions are becoming more important and taking over more decision-making from local authorities to achieve integrated systems and economies of scale. This should be recognised in the revision of directive 94/80/EC. If it’s possible for EU citizens to vote for the mayor of Paris, why are they excluded from city elections in Vienna or Berlin? The cities form networks, work together in the Committee of the Regions and play an increasing European role, and whilst some have been able to extend the suffrage to EU citizens, the majority have not.
Extending participation for EU citizens to national elections in their country of residence is both an issue of “no taxation without representation” and of democratic practice catching up with where real power lies in the EU. In a 2020 Eurobarometer survey, 63% of the population — and 77% of the under 25’s — were in favour of such a reform. Variation across countries was found — citizens of Southern Member States being more favourable than those of the North — but not variations in terms of level of education or income. In its Citizenship Report, the Commission points out that also “Several EU Member States deprive their nationals who live in other countries of the right to vote in national parliamentary elections” back home: Cyprus, Denmark, Germany (after 25 years living abroad), Ireland and Malta. This means that some EU citizens are disenfranchised for having enjoyed their rights to freedom of movement. The Commission promises to remind the Member States concerned of its earlier recommendation to put an end to this situation. But will it be heard this time? A European legislative solution would stand a better chance of success than appeals to individual Member States. It is paradoxical that EU citizens can vote in their country of residence for Members of the European Parliament but not for who represents them at the level of the government. This democratic deficit has become more apparent since the EU governments decided on a recovery package from the pandemic called NextGenerationEU based on debt mutualisation. Surely this makes the case stronger for a Dutchman to be able to vote in Rome and for an Italian resident in Amsterdam to vote there.
Here the European dimension is even more apparent, which makes the exclusion of cross-border citizens difficult to justify. EU citizenship was created in 1992 with the Maastricht Treaty: since then 63 out of 121 referendums held in EU states have been directly related to the EU or to EU shared competences. Others were related to moral or ethical choices, and only a minority to issues of the internal organisation of the State.
In the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU, 3.7 million EU citizens resident in the UK (except those from Cyprus and Malta as Commonwealth citizens) were excluded from the vote, as well as 60% of 1.3 million UK citizens in the EU on the grounds that they had left the country for more than 15 years. The decision to leave the EU was taken by a margin of over one million votes, but the result could have gone the other way if those most directly affected had been able to vote. In order to spare our children from future Brexits, freedom of movement must go together with full political rights. Participation of EU citizens in referendums in their country of residence should be seen as a first step towards EU-wide referendums which surely may well see the light of day.
We would have liked to ask for more but would have risked partial or complete rejection of our ECI as outside the legal competence of the Commission to make a proposal. A new ECI should go further and try to make closing the gap between EU citizens and third-country nationals an objective. In accepting our ECI, the Commission pointed out that there is a legal basis for a research programme on the impact of a more general Europeanisation of voting rights and that the EU can provide incentive measures to promote the integration of third-country nationals, but excluding any legal harmonisation. Some 23.7 million legal residents in the EU cannot even sign an ECI since the right to do so is limited to EU citizens, even though they can petition the European Parliament. Surely that should be changed when ECIs are next revised along with lowering the age for signing an ECI to 16 in all, not just five, Member States.
The next step must be to stress why it is desirable to extend voting rights to all residents:
- EU Citizenship should be developed whilst closing the gap whenever possible between the 13.7 million EU citizens living in another Member State and the 27 million third-country nationals. All those paying their taxes and sending their children to the same schools — whether they are nationals of that state or come from elsewhere — should have the same rights.
- Disenfranchisement of third-country nationals is just as unacceptable as that of EU citizens in an EU founded on common values of democracy and the rule of law. The EU has a Charter of Fundamental Rights and has been working with the Council of Europe to sign the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Universal suffrage for all migrants can contribute both to their integration in the host society and proper representation of their interests. Linking universal suffrage and mobility can effectively combat racism and xenophobia.