Migrants in Europe: To the polling stations!

Article published on Nov. 24, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Italian Parliament is examining draft legislation tabled by Gianfranco Fini aiming to grant migrants who are resident in Europe the right to vote in local elections. An open and shut case?

Has the world been turned upside down? The ‘neo-conservative’, Gianfranco Fini, (a member of Italy’s National Alliance party) wants to grant migrants living in Italy the right to vote. His draft legislation is addressed to those who have been legally resident in Italy for at least six years. It would allow nationals from countries that are not members of the European Union to vote in local and European elections. The Maastricht Treaty already grants this right to nationals of Member States. In Italy, 750,000 people would be affected by the proposed extension in this draft. But it was too good to be true: Gianfranco Fini’s text specifies that these civil rights will be subject to the resident’s income.

A divided Union

Europe is divided over introducing the right to vote for foreign residents which touches on the very notion of Citizenship; a notion about which there is wide scope for interpretation at the very heart of the EU.

Beyond the traditional divisions between the Right and the Left, the debate on granting the right to vote in local elections to foreign residents sporadically brings colour to the cheeks of the European political class. But this is not the case everywhere in Europe. Scandinavian countries, The Netherlands (where reform was put into place before Maastricht), and Ireland (for residents of longer than six weeks) have nothing left to debate: being a foreigner is not incompatible with the right to choose your local representatives. As for Portugal and the United Kingdom, they have agreed to grant the right to vote in local elections to nationals of their former colonies. Spain has reciprocal agreements with certain countries. In this context, and as Italy and Belgium are in the process of examining draft legislation on the subject, France, Germany and Austria are starting to look like the naughty school children left out in cold.

The economy: the determinant criteria

Every politician is going to push for a position on this issue which in Europe affects an electorate of nearly 15 million people, a figure that partly explains this initially surprising stand by Fini: a charm offensive.

And yet, what is at stake is not so much electoral, given the transcendence of the debate from the Left to the Right, the high levels of abstention by immigrant populations, as well as the negligible levels of participation by nationals of EU Member States in local and European elections. It is possible that the vote of foreign residents might push the extreme Right back…as long as it does not give rise to an excess of extremism itself.

By contrast, the votes of foreigners from outside the European Community will have consequences on governance. On the political map the first expected result is an evolution of the dynamics of integration, at least on a local level. Suddenly taking into account a population previously ignored by the political class and which finds itself catapulted to the status of an electorate will not be without effect. We should also not expect any upheavals in any sense of the word, studies having demonstrated that new arrivals quickly adopt the attitudes of their new country.

Defenders of this type of reform insist on its importance in terms of integration. Everything comes back to the question of whether ‘integration’ is achieved through political participation. A priori, what people refer to under the label of ‘integration’ is more an issue of inclusion over exclusion as being public-spirited is an element in the incentive to participate in public life, and therefore to integrate. It will be perhaps the economic stakes that eventually decide whether such reforms will be introduced in Europe’s most nervous countries: Fini’s text is about making the country appear attractive to immigrants who are of use to the Italian economy.

The foreigner: the other self

The debate is still prevaricating because of a certain number of inaccuracies, semantic and cultural misunderstandings (including the definition of ‘foreigner’ itself), and certainties connected to political tradition. The classification of citizenship as nationality remains the main stumbling block to the acquisition of the right to vote for foreign residents. It is time to look again at the meaning of the word ‘citizenship’ and to move it closer to that of ‘participation’.

Discussions about the right to vote for migrants overshadow the issues at the very heart of integration: the place of migrants in the economy, their access to work, social and economic inequalities, and their integration into the society’s culture and attitudes. The right to vote is perhaps a symbolic first step and therefore it is indispensable.

It is clear that migrants are a part of local life simply through their very presence, their financial contribution and sometimes through their active participation in local organisations or neighbourhood councils. Accepting this fact, opening the door of officialdom to them, enables us to envisage a long-term evolution of integration or acquiring the right to vote on a national level.