Local voting rights for non-EU nationals in the EU: Democratic principle or earned privilege?
Passports issued to a Latvian citizen (left) and a ‘non-citizen’ (right). Picture by the author.
In September 2020, I voted in local elections in Germany for the second time. As I walked out of the polling station in Bonn, where I live, I felt an equal part of the community, someone whose voice matters and counts. Yet somewhere deep inside, I was also astonished. The simplicity of the voting process brought back many memories and reminded me of some paradoxes, created by different approaches to granting voting rights to foreigners in the EU.
It was early 2015 when I came to Bonn as a national of Latvia, a small country in the Baltics that joined the EU in 2004. As an EU citizen working in another member state, I am allowed to vote and stand there as a candidate in local or municipal elections. Be it a mayoral runoff, the construction of a new building, or the closure of an old swimming pool, the local authorities always send me a letter inviting me to have my say.
My situation would have been very different, however, if I held a passport of a non-EU country. At present, the EU is not authorised to adopt rules on granting electoral rights to non-EU nationals living in its territory. It is up to the member states to decide whether they wish to do so.
Out of the 27 EU member states, 14 do not currently provide municipal voting rights to non-EU national residents. Germany is one of them. Many of my friends and colleagues have Russian, Ukrainian or Turkish passports and are not allowed to vote, despite having lived in this country for much longer than I have and speaking better German than I do. It is difficult to see how being a Latvian citizen makes me a better resident of Bonn than them. This logic seems even less convincing because, unlike me, they cannot live and work in any other EU member state and often plan to stay in Germany for the rest of their lives.
The situation in Latvia, however, is much more disappointing. Annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, Latvia was able to regain independence only after it collapsed 50 years later. Yet, three decades on, the Baltic state still struggles to come to terms with its history, remaining divided along ethnic and linguistic lines.
Latvia currently has the highest share of native Russian speakers in the EU, who make up 36% of the country’s population of two million. Most of the Russian speakers in Latvia today either came there during the Soviet period as Soviet citizens, or are descendants of such persons. Separated from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain, holders of Soviet passports were moving within their own country which then stretched from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok – for work, family, or military reasons.
My Russia-born grandparents were among the first arrivals. They met during the war and came to Riga in 1947 looking for better labour opportunities. Four decades later, the Soviet Union – the country where they had lived, worked, raised their children and retired – ceased to exist. I was only five by then but can still remember my mum saying, ‘now we live in a different country’.
The restored and independent Latvia, however, granted its citizenship only to people who were born in its territory before 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, and to their descendants. The rest – about one-third of Latvia’s population, including my family – indeed found themselves in a very different country where they were transformed from equal citizens to aliens.
This group was now designated ‘non-citizens’, a peculiar status which guaranteed its holders the right to stay yet denied them the right to vote, both in local and parliamentary elections, and to work in public service. To obtain Latvian citizenship, they were asked to prove their ‘loyalty’ to the state by going through the naturalisation process – taking a Latvian language, history and culture test and learning the national anthem by heart.
This, along with restrictive language policies and strong anti-Russian sentiments, created resentment amongst many of the country’s Russian-speakers, most of whom were either born in Latvia or had lived there for decades and never acquired the citizenship of any other country. After Latvia joined the EU in 2004, the treatment of this group became even more difficult to justify. Unlike Latvian nationals, ‘non-citizens’ are not allowed to work in any other EU member state. Moreover, under EU law, any German, French or Dutch national can now freely move to Latvia and vote there in the local elections. Latvian ‘non-citizens’, however, are still denied this right.
When justifying the exclusion of non-EU national residents from the electoral process, governments most frequently rely on two ideological arguments. Firstly, it is argued that foreigners should be naturalised in order to become equal members of society, but granting them polling rights at a local level would reduce their incentive to become naturalised.
The latter half of this claim, however, is poorly justified. A recent study on migrant behaviour in Sweden found that this was true only for migrants coming from highly developed states. For those from less developed countries, the opposite was the case: the ability to vote at the communal level actually increased their sense of belonging and likelihood to naturalise. For this group, citizenship appears to represent not only access to voting rights but also an array of other highly valued benefits, such as protection, the guaranteed right to stay, and full access to the country’s labour market and social security system.
On the other hand, residents may not always be able or ready to naturalise. For instance, to acquire German citizenship one needs to have lived in the country for at least eight years. Moreover, Germany does not normally allow dual citizenship with non-EU states. My international friends would thus need to give up their existing citizenship and, in some cases, apply for a visa to visit their families in the country they grew up in – too much of a sacrifice for many of them to make.
In Latvia, naturalisation rates have remained low. Over the past three decades, the number of ‘non-citizens’ has dropped from over 700,000 to nearly 200,000 which still amounts to 10% of Latvia’s population. The decline, however, is largely attributed to emigration and mortality. Only some of my relatives, including my mother and I, currently hold citizen passports. Others still have no voting rights and consider the naturalisation procedure too complicated or humiliating. My grandmother, who was 70 back in 1991, could not speak Latvian and consequently remained a ‘non-citizen’ for the following 25 years, up until her death in 2016.
The second major ideological argument against extending polling rights to non-nationals is centred around the fear that this may change the existing power balance. The ability to elect those who share your values, however, is one of the key elements of democracy. From this perspective, enabling non-nationals to influence politics, at least at a local level, is likely to pay off in the long term. The right to vote can make people feel equal and respected, turn them from passive observers into active participants, encourage their involvement in the community, and strengthen their connection to their place of residence. At present, 13 EU member states allow certain categories of non-EU nationals to cast their ballot in local elections. For instance, migrants in Belgium enjoy this right after five years and in Sweden after three years of living in the country.
On the other hand, perceiving the right to vote as an earned privilege may have the opposite effect. In extreme cases, this may marginalise non-national residents, fuelling their resentment towards the government. Excluded from the decision-making process and constantly castigated as ‘disloyal’, many Latvian ‘non-citizens’ distanced themselves from the state, lost interest in local politics and stopped associating themselves with their own country. When I asked my ‘non-citizen’ uncle if he would take part in elections if granted citizenship automatically, he shook his head and said, ‘I would not even come to pick up the new passport’.
Aleksandra Jolkina holds a PhD in law from Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests include EU citizenship, EU free movement rights, and migration and citizenship law. Alongside her doctoral research in the UK, she worked as a journalist for the Bonn-based German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.