There are around 11 million Europeans of voting age residing in another member state of the European Union (EU). If you are one of these citizens on temporary or permanent mobility, know now that the EU has a name for you: “mobile citizen”. The bad news: depending on your country of residence, you may encounter various barriers to participating in European and local elections, the two elections where European treaties guarantee that you can vote and stand as a candidate.
With the next European elections scheduled for May next year (the exact day is not yet set), the last efforts are being made to guarantee rules that allow all people with the right to vote and to stand as candidates to do so. indeed. According to data from the European Commission, only around 10% of mobile citizens (1.3 million) were registered to vote in their Member State of residence.
The European Commission published in November 2021 a proposal to amend the directives that define the rules for the participation of mobile citizens in European elections (93/109/EC) and local elections (94/80/EC). Before being analyzed by the European Parliament (EP), the national parliaments, the European Economic and Social Council and the Committee of the Regions were consulted.
Last week, the European Parliament finally approved two reports with recommendations to the Council of the European Union (the EU’s “Council of Ministers”): one on European elections, signed by German MEP Damian Boeselager (from the Greens group), and another on municipal elections, by conservative Polish MEP Joachim Brudziński.
When reading the reports and listening to what the MEPs defended, one thing becomes clear: if you are a Portuguese citizen living in another EU country (or if you are a European citizen residing in Portugal) and would like to vote in local and European elections, perhaps it is better start now to check if you will, in fact, be able to do it.
What is not yet guaranteed (but could be)?
Even in the Member States that transposed directives 93/109/EC (on European elections) and 94/80/EC (on municipal elections), the percentage of voters among mobile citizens remains low compared to nationals.
At the moment, one of the major problems for mobile citizens is the difficulty of accessing information, both for those who want to stand as candidates and for those who want to vote. The European Parliament proposes that there be information that is easy to understand, in several languages, and, of course, made available in a timely manner, with an indication of deadlines.
One of the suggestions in the report approved by the EP is that voter registration be possible right after registration as a resident — which until now has not been so easy to standardize, as some countries reserve electoral rights for residents for a longer time. The report goes further, suggesting that Member States be proactive and set up automatic registration systems.
The European Parliament recommends the end of the so-called “derogation” provision, a rule that opened the possibility for a Member State to restrict the electoral rights of European residents when they represent more than 20% of all citizens with the right to vote (for example , limiting the composition of candidate lists). This rule, however, is no longer applied in any country since 2013.
There is also the option to vote by mail and elect MEPs in the country of origin, instead of in the country of residence – this is what 5.5 million mobile citizens do. If you are a Portuguese citizen living in the United Kingdom and want to continue to vote for the European ones, it is time to check that your electoral status is regularized so that you can vote for the lists presented in Portugal.
What if I want to apply?
At the 2019 Europeans, only 1.1% of candidates on the lists for the European Parliament were residents outside their country of nationality — at the moment, only three MEPs have been elected in countries other than their nationality. Bearing in mind that there are several countries where the proportion of non-nationals among citizens with the right to vote is between 7 and 14%, such as Cyprus, Ireland, Belgium, Austria and Malta, this is a very low proportion. (In Portugal, European citizens represent only 1.23% of the electorate.)
One of the main recommendations that will be handed over to the Council of the EU is that the application rules and procedures — and the related information — are the same for nationals of the country and citizens of another Member State who wish to apply. That is, no extra bureaucracy for foreigners.
MEPs also believe that it is necessary to end the possibility that exists in some countries of reserving top positions in local administration for their national citizens.
Not just “mobile citizens”
Reflection on the exercise of the right to vote makes it inevitable to also look at other groups.
The report recommends that Member States also facilitate processes for people from vulnerable groups in general, such as the elderly, people with reduced mobility or mental illness, through accessibility conditions in polling places or with mobile voting booths.
Voting by mail, in advance, by proxy or online could be alternatives to in-person voting, which is still the rule (despite the creative solutions that many countries have found in the context of the pandemic years). All of this, of course, with more accessible information on how to safely access less conventional options.
Are we still in time for more immigrants to vote in the next European elections?
Once this consultation process is over, it remains to wait for the response of the ministers in the Council of the EU.
To ensure that the changes take effect as early as the 2024 European elections, the Council needs to take a decision as soon as possible, so that Member States can transpose the new rules by May this year. — that is, one year before the elections.
Despite the very tight deadline, the European commissioner Vera Jourova told MEPs last week that “the commission believes that there is still a window of opportunity to act now for the next elections”.
MEP Damian Boeselager, elected by the Volt in Germany, also stressed that it is “imperative to put pressure on national leaders to put these rights into practice”.