By Lorenzo Piccoli (University of Neuchâtel and European University Institute), GLOBALCIT collaborator. This article has been originally posted on EUreka!, the Eurac research institute’s blog on all things EU and the European Parliament elections.
Internal mobility is at the very core of the European project. Indeed, one of the most important rights of EU citizenship is free movement, which allows us to study, work, travel, and retire in the Member State that better suits our ideals, ambitions, and skills. Over 15 million citizens of voting age are currently exercising this right, by virtue of living in a Member State other than that of their nationality.
This number amounts to 3.41% of the entire voting population in Europe and it has doubled over the last ten years. Living in a small Swiss city, hence outside the EU, at present I am not part of these 3.41%. Yet, many of my Italian friends are. They work in Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, and the UK; a few have now returned to Italy after completing studies in another EU country. In an ideal future scenario, I would like to spend a part of my career, and possibly even my retirement, in a remote Irish village. Hence, I can easily relate to mobility engrained in EU citizenship.
While in theory mobile EU citizens should be accorded the same electoral rights as nationals of the Member State where they reside, the reality is far more complicated. Member States have wide discretion in regulating voting and candidacy rights of mobile EU citizens. As a result, there are important national variations with regard to eligibility and access to electoral rights for mobile EU citizens in the elections to the European Parliament (EP).
Non-citizen residents (foreign citizens)
My sister Anna lives in Brussels, Belgium. She wants to vote in the EP elections for Belgium: after three years in the European capital she feels more informed about political debates in Brussels than in Rome. She is considered a resident who does not hold citizenship in Belgium (hence, a non-citizen resident or a citizen of another Member States). She has the right to vote in the EP elections where she lives: all Member States grant EU citizens the right to vote and to stand as candidates in local and EP elections in line with the provisions of the EU Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
However, voting registration for non-citizen residents varies significantly across countries. In fact, only Ireland, Lithuania, and Latvia automatically add mobile EU citizens to the electoral roll (but they still need declare that they will not vote elsewhere). In the other countries, mobile EU citizens often face challenges such as early registration deadlines. My sister had to file an application in her municipality of residence 90 days before the date of the elections – that is, by 25 February for the current elections. She did not forget to register on time – but many of her peers fell victim to procedures that take place long ahead of the elections. They lost their right to vote.
A second important issue for mobile EU citizens who want to vote in the country where they reside is the right to join a political party. If she wanted to, my sister would have no trouble joining a political party in Belgium, thanks to the country’s inclusive legislation. However, some countries impose legal barriers to foreign EU citizens becoming members of political parties in Member States. In Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia foreign EU citizens can only join a political organisation until they have registered this intention with the authorities. In the Czech Republic and in Poland, foreign citizens are prohibited by law from joining political parties.
Non-resident citizens (citizens living abroad)
My friend Daniele lives in Barcelona, Spain. He decided to vote in the EP elections in Italy, the country of his citizenship, because he still feels involved in Italian society through media and social relationships. In Italy, he is a citizen who does not reside in the country: hence, a non-resident citizen or a citizen living abroad.
The most important issue for mobile EU citizens who, like Daniele, want to vote in their country of citizenship concerns the right to vote itself. Hungary and Slovakia do not allow nationals abroad to vote, while Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta guarantee such rights only to specific categories of the population, like diplomats and their spouses. British nationals residing abroad for longer than fifteen years lose their right to vote. Thus, only some mobile EU citizens retain the right to vote in the country where they hold citizenship.
Since Italy takes an inclusive approach to nationals resident abroad, Daniele has the right to vote from Spain. He can do so by post or in person, casting his ballot at the Italian embassy in Barcelona. Other countries provide alternative methods, like proxy voting via a nominated person of trust and, in the case of Estonia only, e-voting via the internet. Mobile EU citizens who have only one option for casting their vote are those from the Czech Republic: they retain the right to vote but must return to their country to exercise it.
As the number of mobile EU citizens keeps growing, so does their electoral influence over the outcome of EP elections in many countries. Mobile EU citizens represent 40% of the electorate in Luxembourg, 14% in Cyprus, and about 10% in Ireland, Belgium and Austria. Many Italians live outside of the country and would like to exercise their right to vote, either in the place where they live or back in Italy. Member States do not have uniform voting procedures that apply to mobile EU citizens. As a result, some mobile EU citizens are prohibited from voting; others find it difficult to navigate the complex system of entitlements based on nationality and residence and hence fail to register. Ultimately, this results in uneven practices of electoral inclusiveness and democratic participation.
If you are a mobile EU citizen or if you are interested in knowing more about the complex regulation of the electoral rights in relation to this group of citizens, play with the interactive website Spaceeu2019. You can also read the synthesis report, policy recommendations, and consult infographics that GLOBALCIT has produced under the FAIR EU project.