30 September 2020

“Making the right to vote dependent on national citizenship is senseless”: An interview with Anna Comacchio and Sinéad O’Keeffe

Sinéad O’Keeffe is from Waterford, Ireland. She moved to Dublin to study Law at Trinity College for four years. Since finishing up her studies during lockdown she has taken up her position on the Voters Without Borders Team – moving to Brussels in early July.

D(e)F: You have launched the European Citizensʼ Initiative Voters without borders, which aims at “full political rights” for EU citizens in the member state where they live. What exactly are your proposals?

Sinéad O’Keeffe: Our proposals come under two headings: The first is to extend the right of mobile EU citizens to vote and stand in elections to include regional, national elections and referendums. EU citizens have the right to move, freely reside and work anywhere within the Union, so it is high time that the right to vote catches up.

The second heading is to strengthen what voting rights are already present. In order to strengthen existing rights, we propose seven points.

  1. Member States should supply complete data and stats on turnout and registration of mobile EU citizens.
  2. General awareness of European political rights should be raised by Member States and the EU.
  3. Member States should be obliged to inform European citizens individually and in their own language about their voting and eligibility rights.
  4. Registration on electoral rolls should be automatic for all EU citizens in their country of residence (in good time before elections) in order to remove barriers to freedom of movement, unless they have chosen to vote in their country of origin.
  5. A helpdesk made up of a network of national electoral authorities and the Commission should be created in order to share best practice and remove obstacles preventing mobile EU citizens from voting.
  6. Member States should be encouraged to introduce and share best practice on electoral reforms whilst also introducing the necessary safeguards to prevent fraud.
  7. The EU should encourage the introduction of new voting methods, such as e-voting, postal voting, and more scope to vote early and where is most convenient.

Residence-based representation

Anna Comacchio has studied languages and intercultural communication in Italy and then moved to Leipzig, Germany to carry on a master in European Studies, among other work experiences abroad. She is now Project and Communication Manager at ECIT Foundation, Voters Without Borders Coordinator.

EU citizens living in another EU country have had voting rights in European and local elections in their country of residence since the Treaty of Maastricht entered into force in 1993. (For European elections they can also choose to vote in their country of origin.) Voting rights for national and regional elections, on the other hand, have never been regulated at the EU level. Almost all EU countries currently limit voting rights for national elections to their own citizens, in most (though not all) cases including their citizens living abroad.

As a consequence, local and national parliaments today follow two different principles of democratic representation: Local assemblies represent “the (EU) citizens living at a certain place” whereas national parliaments represent “the subjects of a certain country, independently from where they live”. Your proposal would give priority to the first principle also for national and regional elections. Where do you see the democratic advantages of granting voting rights by residence instead of nationality?

Anna Comacchio: You are right, democratic participation is still seen through national eyes and has not caught up with the increasing transnational mobility of the last decades, except for local and European elections. People living abroad are now becoming more and more conscious of their underrepresentation in politics.

One cause for this underrepresentation is that parties are inclined to respond only to the interests of their national electorate, and this often pays off with political parties highlighting national populists’ messages and threats from the “external others”. One of the advantages of granting voting rights by residence instead of nationality would be that the policies produced by governments would take into account the increasing transnational flow and interdependencies at European and global level, as well as marginalized groups whose voices are not yet heard.

Granting people full political rights to EU citizens where they live can also help favour their integration in society. Although the impact of the initiative on the political system and parties would be minimal, symbolically its significance will be huge.

We are not, however, arguing solely for voting rights based on residency. For citizens, having democratic rights is more important than the question of where and under what conditions they are practised provided these are fair and non-discriminatory. The best option is to give EU mobile citizens a choice on where they can vote, provided there are rules against double voting, which are properly enforced.

Naturalization is not the answer

A common argument against residency-based voting rights is that migrants who want to participate in the democratic life of their host country should simply acquire citizenship there. And if acquiring citizenship is a lengthy process that often takes many years, this is only fair and reasonable: after all, it also takes time to get familiarised with a country’s political culture and party system.

Moreover, short-time migrants who quickly return to their countries of origin won’t even be affected by most decisions of the parliament they elect. How do you respond to this kind of objection?

Anna Comacchio: In the European Union where people benefit from European Citizenship, citizens can move freely and choose their place of residence. Making the right to vote dependent on national citizenship is senseless and reduces free movement to a right of consumption and production. Naturalisation for EU citizens living short time in a different EU country, is simply not an option. Government terms are never longer than 4 or 5 years, so voting once, twice or three times for the national parliament of the country you currently live in does not mean that you pledge long-term loyalty to this country and this country alone, and should not imply that you want to be naturalised.

For longer-term residents, there are significant obstacles, especially when faced with different national procedures for naturalisation requiring for example periods of prior residence between 5 and 12 years. With Brexit, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of UK citizens acquiring other EU nationalities to keep their EU citizenship but still, the numbers run in tens rather than hundreds of thousands.

Naturalization is not the answer to all EU citizens who are disenfranchised. This Citizens’ Initiative argues that disenfranchisement is unacceptable just because people use the right to live and work anywhere in Europe. We put forward a European solution to a European problem.

Third-country citizens

As you are mentioning a “European” solution: What is your position regarding third-country (that is, non-EU) citizens living in the EU? Should they have voting rights, too?

Anna Comacchio: Though our campaign deals with voting rights for EU citizens, we wholly support the granting of such rights to all people, including third-country nationals that are resident in an EU member state and contribute to that society. We believe that non-EU nationals permanently living in the EU should be allowed to decide how their taxes are spent locally.

However, as an ECI is an EU tool which asks the Commission to act on its competences, our main objectives are to provide its rights to EU citizens first. Granting rights to third country citizens is a member state competence. But the Commission can still push for an inclusion of these citizens in each member state. It is up to the European institutions to decide how to implement our proposals, and these can be widely or narrowly implemented.

A window of opportunity

Voters without borders is not the first ECI addressing the question of voting rights. In 2012, the association Européens Sans Frontières launched a similar initiative called Let me vote, which, however, failed to reach the necessary 1 million signatures. (I wrote about it on this blog back then.) Why do you think it is worthwhile to address this topic again right now?

Anna Comacchio: If one looks at statistics and opinion polls, one can see that, in comparison with the past, the general level of awareness for citizens’ rights and the concept of European Citizenship has increased, as well as the level of support for full voting rights for other EU citizens (Eurobarometer 485, 2020).

This increase is certainly due to previous initiatives such as Let me vote in 2012, but it is first and foremost because of the Brexit Referendum, which for the first time has exposed how fragile such rights can be and at the same time has shown the dramatic consequences of not allowing the transnational population to have a voice on issues that do not regard solely one member state, but the whole of Europe. In addition, the mobile population has almost doubled in the last decade, meaning that this category is slowly becoming more visible and more aware of its rights and potential.

According to the ECI regulation, there is a year to collect one million signatures. In reality, however, we believe that there is a real opportunity to get these issues on the agenda right now. The Commission is clearly highlighting political rights in its consultation for the tri-annual report on Union citizenship and asking whether new political rights should be added. There is also the Democracy Action plan expected by the end of the year and the late start of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Commission policymakers and members of the European Parliament will be looking closely at how many signatures we are getting as they weigh up what priority to give to a package of measures on European democracy.

The potential of an ECI

A European Citizens Initiative requires a considerable amount of transnational organising. For starters, you need a team of seven people living in seven different EU countries only to launch it, followed by transnational campaigning and collecting of signatures.

Voters without borders was launched by a group of young people, sponsored by the small Belgian ECIT Foundation. How did this initiative come about and what have been your experiences since you started the ECI? Is it a suitable instrument for bottom-up transnational participative democracy?

Anna Comacchio: For the last years ECIT Foundation has been discussing ways to improve and popularize European Citizenship. The idea for the ECI came up especially during its Summer University 2019, when students and young people present suggested that it was up to the younger generations to take this on, and campaign with the same spirit like for the European elections (see the #thistimeimvoting campaign) and the several climate strikes.

Our taskforce of young people that came together to support the ECI with a diverse set of research and practical skills, transnational experience and language knowledge, know well all the concerns young people have about a dubious future and decided to experiment with the ECI tool, as we believe in its enormous potential.

At the moment, I think there are two main problems. First, when it comes to information, most people – even within the Brussels bubble – don’t know about this instrument. Second, concerning the actual implementation of the proposal, we think that only when an initiative is successful and directly discussed in Parliament and Council, and eventually converted into law, people will actually start to sign them and believe in the power of an ECI.

Power of the people

Sinéad O'Keeffe: I was involved from the beginning (around January), however I was still full-time in my law degree so only joined the occasional meeting. I began to do more work from home in June, back in Ireland. However, since joining the Brussels office in July things have been very busy. We had the two-month run-up to our launch event on 1 September. Sometimes challenging, but ever-rewarding. We are navigating our way through new obstacles every day. The work has changed slightly since 1 September as we are now focusing largely on partner organisations, media exposure and funding. This will change again though once our next event gets closer.

I believe the ECI instrument is suitable for bottom-up transnational participative democracy as it engages with the average citizen. There are some faults with the instrument of course, like the fact that it requires 1 million signatures – no easy task –, a number that since the exit of the UK from the EU should be lessened in order to be in line with the current population of the Union.

Nevertheless, the ECI instrument gives citizens more power than the average person thinks. From looking at our pyramid scheme in our campaign one can see that if each person signing the initiative spreads it to four more people and convinces them also to sign, 1 million signatures can be reached with only ten levels. This illustrates clearly the power of the people!

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