What is the difference between a German and a Congolese in France? Thanks to community law, the former receives the same treatment as a Frenchman for access to employment, studies and social benefits. The rights he has in Germany can also be transferred to France. This is true of the whole European Union. The latter’s rights, however, are limited by French laws for foreigners. In Great Britain this law is different in both content and application. A further difference between the two is that, since the Maastricht Treaty established European citizenship in 1992, the German is automatically allowed to participate in local and European elections. The Congolese does not have the right to vote, even if he has been living in France for 30 years.
European citizenship should be held up as an example
Granting civil rights to community citizens living in a country other than their own would totally redefine the traditional concept of citizenship: you would no longer have to be a national of the country in which you live to be able to participate in local and European elections; the fact that it is your country of primary residence would be sufficient. In this case, citizenship and the right to vote would no longer be determined by nationality but by residence.
This shift could prove extremely useful in changing attitudes towards the voting rights of foreigners in our country and the well-known discourse associated with them. A foreigner who says, “I have been living in this town for 20 years, I pay my taxes and I should be allowed to vote for the Mayor” receives a standard response from someone opposed to the granting of voting rights to foreigners: “If you want to vote in France and you have been living here for so long, then all you have to do is get yourself French nationality”. The creation of citizenship by virtue residence would counteract this facile response. It would mark the end of the primacy of naturalisation. Immigrants to the EU who wish to retain their nationality would stand to benefit from a citizenship determined by residence rather than nationality. Need it be any more complicated?
More or less a foreigner?
Whilst some differences are being eliminated, others are becoming increasingly prominent. The difference between a Frenchman and a German in Europe may diminish, but only at the price of a greater difference between a German and a Congolese residing in France. There is no doubt that increased rights for community citizens is a great step forward and a mark of the success of the internal market. But these rights are eating away at the rights of non-member nationals residing in the EU. Even if a line has to be drawn between community citizens and non-member nationals, their rights should still be consolidated at the same pace. Everyone, irrespective of nationality, contributes to society in some way – sometimes through work and always through cultural diversification.
A challenge for European politicians
New Community politicians should be mindful of this in their approach. When member state representatives negotiate in Brussels on directives concerning laws for foreigners (particularly foreign students and workers in Europe), they should take care to provide these people with a clear set of rights. National legislation in some countries is quite generous: study access and scholarships are available, for instance, and some members grant the same advantages to foreigners as to nationals. Others offer fewer rights to foreigners, however, and there are even some countries that don’t offer any advantages at all.
Countries with more experience in immigration policy have measures and legal mechanisms in place to guarantee the respect of a certain number of foreigners’ rights. Countries that until now have been predominantly countries of emigration tend to offer less protection. The risk of harmonising rights at a European level is that there will only be consensus on a minimum number of rights, with stricter countries refusing to adopt the policies of the more generous ones.
The fact that some member states offer foreigners the right to vote could be a good example to others. European politicians should encourage greater integration of foreigners and not content themselves with offering a bare minimum of rights. They should take this protection of rights one step further and offer foreigners the citizenship by virtue residence that already exists for current citizens of the EU.
To develop this further, the EU could follow the example of the directive on the rights of long-term foreign residents of the EU currently being adopted by the Council. It is not unrealistic to hope that civil rights and duties, in other words the key ingredient to successful integration, might be added to the social and economic rights accorded to foreigners by this text.
This directive stipulates that after five years of residence in an EU member state, the foreigner concerned will acquire similar rights to those of an EU citizen on access to employment, studies and the movement around the EU. To round off this series of rights, the right to vote for foreigners in local and European elections should also be provided for in all member states.
Obviously this cannot happen over night, particularly in view of the time and effort it took for all 15 member states to reach consensus on social and economic rights alone. But at least the method exists. Some specific national initiatives, like those in Italy, could, if they were to gain a following, facilitate negotiations on the harmonisation of the civil rights of foreigners. We can only hope that this time harmonisation will bring an improvement across the board.