Thursday, April 13, 2006

Should expatriates be allowed to vote?

In the light of the role of Italian expatriates in the very narrow victory of Romano Prodi’s centre left coalition, I was going to post on the question of “should expatriates be allowed to vote?” Some interesting discussions are to be found here and here. Expatriate voting is, of course, a global phenomenon. It is especially important in places like Mexico or Latin America. It is very common within Europe.

Obviously there are various principles which could be applied when deciding whether expatriates should be allowed to vote: an ethnic nationalist conception of citizenship, for example, leads to the conclusion that expatriates of the same ethnos automatically have an interest in participating politically in the original home polity. Alternatively, if expatriates are very distant (physically, temporally, perhaps even psychologically) from the original home polity, and are more integrated into the host polity, perhaps to the extent of holding the citizenship of that polity as a dual citizenship, and consequently being able to vote there, then it is hard to argue that their political participation in the home polity is necessary either to secure their democratic rights or to ensure the democratic inclusiveness of a home polity which has seen a great deal of emigration. And there are lots of positions between those two. In reality, as the Italian case shows, many expatriate voting rights are introduced with a view to gaining party political advantage. Equally, as Berlusconi now knows, and Prodi enjoys to his advantage, this can backfire! The law of unintended consequences.

However, rather than focusing on expatriate voting as such, I decided to concentrate on the specific case of voting in national elections by those EU citizens (about 1.5% of population amongst the old EU 15 Member States; perhaps more if one takes into account the new 10 Member States despite the labour market access restrictions, but I have yet to see any convincing figures) who are resident in other Member States, under the EU free movement rules. This is because the Commission itself has said that this group consistently complain about the fact that they are excluded from voting in all national elections a lot of the time. For example, most cannot vote in the host state without taking on citizenship. The exceptions are UK citizens in Ireland, and Irish, Cypriot and Maltese citizens in the UK. Many cannot vote in their home state, if they stay outside the home state for long enough. For example, UK expatriate voting rights expire after fifteen years outside the UK. Furthermore, the EU positively encourages inter Member State migration as part of the single market programme, and since it does not encourage (or indeed discourage) free movers to take on the nationality of the host state because it guarantees them equal treatment based on their home state nationality with those who have the host state nationality. It seems therefore reasonable to argue that as a necessary corollary of the EU’s development, and in particular its claim to offer a form of ‘citizenship’ to all the nationals of the Member States, that there is a case for a comprehensive right to democratic representation amongst EU citizens which should apply irrespective of residence, and should not extend only (as it does at present) to local elections and European Parliament elections.

But how should this be achieved? At the moment, the EU does not have the competence to order the Member States to allow resident non-nationals to vote in their national elections. And arguably it should not have such a competence. At this stage, however, I am simply at the stage of canvassing options, which I have narrowed down to the following:

1. Preserve full national choice in this matter as we have at the moment.

2. Member States could be encouraged to give a form of citizenship automatically to resident non-nationals to allow them to vote in national elections. This is rather like the US model for the various states, except that automatic citizenship acquisition in the state of residence was imposed by the Constitution as part of the development of US citizenship and is not a choice of the states. In the EU context, this would probably need to go hand in hand with encouragement to allow dual home/host state nationality, so that home state voting could also be possible.

3. To facilitate home state voting either loosen registration requirements (as in France where it is not hard to register to vote even if you actually really live elsewhere) and/or have generous expatriate voting arrangements with or without specialist expatriate representation (France, and now Italy have such specialist representation arrangements) and/or remove the temporal limitations (e.g. as in the UK). This means a move towards comprehensive expatriate voting for EU citizens resident in other Member States to ensure they don’t fall down a ‘democratic crack’.

It is worth noting that in the context of points 2 and 3, as a matter of principle a position needs to be taken on whether dual voting in the home and the host state in national elections is a problem. It is not permitted in the case of European Parliament elections which all EU citizens can vote for provided they are resident in the Member States or are resident in other states but are covered by their home state’s expatriate voting rules, because it is clearly wrong that any person should have two votes for a European Parliament elected under universal direct suffrage. In contrast it is not so clearly wrong that the individuals may have two votes in separate national elections.

4. The less likely option is that EU measures will be adopted by the Member States to require themselves to adopt such rules allowing resident non-nationals to vote. It would require a formal extension of competence under the treaties first (i.e. all the Member States would have to agree upon that, and there would have to be national ratification of such a Treaty), and this is both unlikely and, perhaps, undesirable.

5. The EU might start trying to persuade the Member States to do this, by pointing to examples where it happens – UK/Ireland – as best practice for democratic inclusiveness.

6. Finally, the Member States could be encouraged to start agreeing with each other to allow non-nationals to vote. This would be quite easy for Ireland. Ireland has the necessary legal provisions in place for a Minister to make an order allowing other categories of EU citizens to vote in its national elections, on condition of reciprocity. So if the Finns were to decide that the Irish could vote in their national elections, then Ireland would necessarily do likewise. However, it is an interesting question whether one could design an institutional format to structure the encouragement amongst the Member States to develop the trust and reciprocity necessary to extend their voting rights to each others’ citizens.

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