Election watch: Brussels will act to strengthen the right to vote of EU residents

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EU citizens residing in the Netherlands and aged at least 18, as well as non-EU citizens residing in the country for at least 5 years, can vote in the local elections on 14, 15 and 16 March. But will they?

In the 2019 European elections, only 12% of the 490,000 EU nationals who were eligible to vote in the Netherlands registered to vote. This is not a specifically Dutch problem and the low level of participation is seen across the EU.

According to the EU statistical office Eurostat, on 1 January 2020, 13.5 million EU citizens lived in another EU member state, of which 12 million were of voting age. Under EU citizenship rules, they have the right to vote and stand as candidates in local and European elections in the country in which they live. But few take advantage of this advantage.

The reasons, according to an analysis by the European Commission, are a general lack of awareness of their rights, limited information on voting procedures, lack of familiarity with local politics, as well as language problems.

During the 2019 European vote, for example, Dutch people complained that they did not know they had to register and some received false information from their local council.

The Commission decided to tackle the problems and in November published planned changes to the European suffrage directives, in the hope of improving voter turnout.

More information and in other languages

EU directives define the electoral rights of people crossing borders and leave it to member states to decide how they are exercised at national level, as long as the principle of non-discrimination is respected.

In some countries, voter registration of residents is automatic. In others, it must be requested.

In the Netherlands, people are not required to register to take part in local elections and at least 14 days before the vote, a voter’s card (stempas) will be sent to the homes of all those eligible.

But EU citizens are required to register for the European Parliament election, because in this case they can choose to vote in their country of origin or in the country of residence, and Member States must avoid multiple voting.

The European Commission plans to simplify the application of this rule in the future with better communication between authorities and standardized templates, but civil rights campaigners say more can be done.

Passive information

Under EU directives, national authorities must inform EU citizens how to exercise their right to vote. However, most rely on “passive information”, such as mention of voting procedures on their websites.

A study by the European University Institute on the political participation of EU citizens in the Netherlands showed that in the 2014 local elections, 31% of Dutch municipalities provided specific information to non-citizen residents, but this figure was only 8% for municipalities with a population between 50,000 and 100,000.

Cities and districts mainly used their web pages to inform voters and only 4% provided information in a language other than Dutch.

Before the municipal elections in March, voters will receive the list of candidates and the addresses of the polling stations but it is up to the cities themselves to decide what extra effort they will make to ensure that foreign nationals vote.

Amsterdam, where most foreign residents live, has prepared short animated videos with subtitles in several languages. But there will be no specific campaign to encourage non-Dutch nationals to vote. Eindhoven, on the other hand, organized an election meeting and a version of the Stemwijzer voting tool in English.

New rules

This may change in the future. The European Commission has proposed that EU countries designate a national authority to “communicate directly and individually” to EU residents about the conditions under which they can vote, including their registration status, how and where to vote. , and how to get more information about the election.

In addition, basic information must be provided in at least one other official EU language “widely understood by as many EU citizens as possible” in the country. The bill also indicates that more efforts should be made to inform people with disabilities and the elderly about their right to vote.

The ECIT Foundation, which works on EU citizenship in Brussels, believes the proposal could be more ambitious. The group called for the creation of dedicated helplines that would “proactively” help voters “before, during and after the election.”

ECIT founder Tony Venables says it would also benefit non-EU citizens who are eligible to vote. “We have called for the creation of support services in EU countries for the exercise of the right to vote and if this is done for EU citizens, why not extend them to all?” he said.

A data problem

Another problem in the EU is the lack of data on the participation of citizens from other countries, which leaves authorities in the dark about what needs to be done to improve participation. Surveys have shown that the longer EU citizens have lived in another EU country, the more likely they are to be involved in the electoral process, but statistical information is limited.

Dutch national statistics office CBS said ahead of the 2019 European elections that 3.6% of the Dutch electorate were other EU citizens, or nearly 500,000 people. Almost a quarter (24%) of them were Polish, followed by the Germans (14%), the British, then EU citizens, the Italians and the Belgians.

For local elections, however, this data is not broken down by nationality, although an approximate figure can be calculated by subtracting the number of people eligible to vote in national elections – Dutch nationals only – from the local voters list.

The European Commission wants to improve in this area by working with national statistical institutes and electoral authorities to collect more data on participation in local and European elections.

The role of the mayor

EU citizens who live in other EU countries can also be candidates in local elections. In addition to awareness-raising and red tape issues, the European Commission’s assessment indicates that “equal opportunities to exercise electoral rights are not fully achieved”, as some EU countries still reserve certain posts. to their own nationals only.

In the Netherlands, the mayor and the members of the municipal executive (wethouder – alderman) can only be Dutch citizens. Similar restrictions exist in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and Slovenia.

This will not change in the future, although the Commission says these limitations are slowly diminishing. But countries will be asked to report regularly on the application of these measures to assess the need to maintain them.

New rules from 2024

It will take some time before these new measures are applied. The Commission’s proposals will have to be approved by the Council of the EU (made up of representatives of EU governments) after consulting the European Parliament.

The Commission aims to have the new rules in place by 2024, in time for the next European elections.

The article is published in collaboration with Europe Street Newsa medium on citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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