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Migration on the ballot: European elections and immigrant enfranchisement

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Among the many elections that are taking place this year, the European elections on 26 May have been particularly significant in mapping the continent’s perspectives on migration. What is more important, they have set the scene for new migration policies in the upcoming years. News outlets have highlighted that, just as the 2014 elections reflected the European political response to the economic crisis and austerity measures, this year’s ballots gather the reactions to the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’. At the same time, this year’s string of elections also bring into focus how migration and mobility are challenging the deeply seated notion that voting is the ultimate expression of national citizenship. Let us analyse first the different positions that EU parties hold on migration, before considering the ways in which not letting migrants vote hurts our democracies.

The electoral menu in 2019


Candidates running for a seat in the European Parliament (which later will decide on a new president of the European Commission) have kept migration a prominent talking point in their discourse, as we have reported throughout the campaign. Their proposals, however, were scarcely new, and while all of them focused on new Mediterranean arrivals, there was very little discussion on any other issues related to migration. Although we know that keeping electoral promises can be a rare art, let’s have a look at the proposals from the various political groups and see what we can expect for this legislature.

At the centre of the political spectrum, there is a growing consensus on linking migration and development policies. Both the conservatives of the European Popular Party (the leading group with 23.8% of the seats) and the Socialists (who came in second with 20.4%) have embraced the idea of a large-scale development project for the African continent. This ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’, originally presented by Germany to the G20 in 2017, has been repeatedly criticised by academics and practitioners. First, it is based on the unsupported premise that the more developed an economy is, the less a population moves, an overly simplistic understanding of the ways in which migration and development are related that is very often just untrue. This interpretation misses the point that, as people become more affluent, their expectations and their financial capacity to fulfil them also tend to increase. Furthermore, making development policy the little sister of migration policy and conditioning aid on a government’s ability to deter migration flows is not only wrong from an ethical perspective. It could also have harmful effects for populations on the receiving end, where stemming the inflow of remittances - three times larger than official development assistance - could severely hurt the economy. Besides all of this, it goes without saying that announcing such a grand design for African economies that will serve first and foremost European interests certainly evokes some disturbing colonial ghosts.

The two main parties disagree on border control: while conservatives support harder borders and tougher measures on smugglers, socialists call for a softer policy on civil rescue at sea. On the other hand, the Liberals (14.1% of the seats) have not centred their attention as much on ‘addressing root causes’ as they have on creating a new functioning common asylum system and extending the blue card system to low-skilled workers.

The various Eurosceptic and Europhobe parties – which, in total, have taken around 25% of the seats – share different degrees of anti-immigrant sentiment. Among those trumpeting that these elections were a ‘referendum on migration’, we can recall Salvini’s poster calling to ‘stop the soft-hearted, stop the boats’; the French Rassemblement National claiming that Frontex is ‘a hotel receptionist’ and denying that migrants are returned to Libya under inhumane conditions; and Orbán’s interpretation of his results as a mandate to ‘stop migration’ altogether. We can expect they will try to block most common policies and initiatives to ensure migrant rights and they will push for tougher border controls and outsourcing reception centres. Some, like the European Conservatives and Reformists where the Tories and the PiS sit, may support the idea of a conditional package of development aid for Africa.

On the left, the Greens (rising on a wave to 10%) and the European Left (with a modest result of 5%) have been most critical with the current situation in the Mediterranean and in Libya. The Greens call for a common asylum policy that does not criminalise migrants nor citizens helping them; a border policy that does not outsource responsibilities to third countries; and support for member States and cities in the integration of migrants. The far-left has also presented a different narrative on migration, bringing forward its positive impact, and with its leader Nico Cué proudly introducing himself as ‘the son of illegal immigrants’ in electoral debates.


All these different policy positions will sit together in a highly fragmented plenary when the European Parliament resumes its activity. The conservatives and the socialists, who up until now made up a majority of seats, have lost their informal status of ‘grand coalition’, which means that every legislative proposal will need the support of at least three different political groups. Migration policy is likely to yield some interesting political geometry in the next five years.



Pushing the last frontier of the franchise


While migrants have been a central object of the debate, they have barely been regarded as political subjects. Campaign speeches repeatedly failed to speak directly to migrants, as often happens: politicians focus their attention on asking citizens for their vote, since that is their prerogative, and end up leaving migrants out of the conversation. In countries where diasporas are politically significant and have the right to vote from abroad or via a proxy person, they may call to mobilise the emigrant vote. On the other hand, immigrants have traditionally been banned from voting. We can find an explanation in classical political theory: in a democracy, as opposed to absolute monarchies, people become citizens as they hold a number of civil and political rights, among which suffrage features prominently. However, the definition of who is a citizen, and therefore who has the right to vote and to be elected, has expanded several times in history, and it could happen again.


Linking the right to vote to national citizenship means that no matter for how long a person has resided in a certain country, or which legal status they have, they will not be able to cast their ballot. In countries where nationality is based on a ius sanguinis system (i.e. parents pass on their nationality to their kids), even children born there may not have that right. As a result, they do not have a say in the matters affecting the communities where they live, nor the possibility of making politicians accountable. This puts immigrants in a position of political vulnerability. The size of this disenfranchised population is not precisely negligible: in places like Barcelona, between 10% and 15% of the population does not have the right to vote or to run for office.


However, the barriers to the vote are starting to give in at the European and local council levels. European elections reflect a form of political membership that goes beyond national borders. European citizenship, which comes in as an addition to citizenship of a member state, grants the right to elect the members of the European Parliament, which EU citizens can exercise in their country of origin or their country of residence. The massive denial of this right that happened in the UK last May may be due to clerical errors, but it is a statement about how some institutions see the common bond of European belonging as already broken.


At the local level, where neighbourhood life makes community ties more visible and concrete, the franchise frontier seems to be advancing further. In countries like Spain, from where I am writing, EU citizens have the right to vote, as well as non-EU citizens whose countries of origin have signed reciprocal treaties on the matter. The result, as Luicy Pedroza argues for the Portuguese case, is a vertical map of constituencies within the city with different degrees of voting rights and different procedures to acquire them. For example, an Italian can vote in the Spanish municipal elections just after registering with the local authorities; a Norwegian, after three years of residence; a Cape Verdean, after five years; and even after ten years a Moroccan could not vote. At the end of the day, and despite the increase in the numbers, only 10% of all foreigners in Spain can vote in some of the elections. However, merely 6% of the enfranchised non-EU citizens did. Another layer of disenfranchisement comes from the very procedures for claiming the vote: paperwork can be complicated and requires starting months ahead of the elections, and many people are not even aware of their right. Activists, however, keep raising awareness and calling for a fairer system with campaigns like #VotarEsUnDerecho (‘voting is a right’) or Barcelona’s ‘Mi ciudad, mi voto’ (‘my city, my vote’).


Migration is the last frontier of the franchise, but new, broader understandings of membership and belonging like the idea behind the European elections are helping push it further. A true, strong democracy needs to allow the voice of migrants to be heard at the polls and in parliaments, since it is precisely their rights which are most under threat, as we keep seeing in the Mediterranean, in our streets, and in our schools. Perhaps if their job was on the line, the likes of Salvini and Farage would think twice before dehumanising and spreading hate on their next-door neighbour.

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Magda Rodríguez Dehli

Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She interned at the Spanish Foreign Ministry and at the European Commission and she is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish foreign service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political.

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