Imagine Brussels without its expat population. It would be a lot less fun living here if we didn’t have all those places created by non-Belgians, like Piola Libri, Waterstones, Aksum, Au Suisse, English Comedy Club, Kitchen 151, Forcado, and many more. Expats bring a lot of energy and innovation to this city, and they also pay taxes, support local businesses and raise children here.
But there’s one thing they don’t do much – and that is to vote. Ever since 2000, when EU residents won the right to vote in local elections, the turnout rate has been depressingly low.
In Brussels Region, almost 200,000 EU citizens had the right to vote in the 2012 commune elections, but only 26,000 bothered to do so, representing a participation rate of under 14 percent. Meanwhile, only 8,000 non-EU citizens voted out of more than 51,000 entitled to do so, a 15.5 percent turnout.
It comes down to various reasons. Some expats feel uncomfortable with the Belgian concept of compulsory voting – and the threat of a fine for not voting (although almost no-one does get fined). Others find the administration daunting, or they just don’t understand Belgian politics.
Thomas Huddleston, a Belgian-American expat based at the Migration Policy Group, strongly believes that expats should take part in the local elections. “We know what our interests are,” he says, “we know what kind of life we want to have for ourselves and for our kids, we have our political opinions. I think that we have to fight together for our interests.”
He points out that expats make up the majority of the population in several Brussels communes. “For example in Saint-Gilles or in Ixelles, most of the people who could vote are not Belgian citizens,” he notes. “So actually, it could be our commune. It could be done in a way that we would want it to be done.”
Huddleston recently launched a petition to give expats the right to vote in the Brussels Region elections in 2019. The petition #1bru1vote calls for an end to the democratic deficit in Brussels Region in which expats – who represent about one-third of the population – have no right to vote.
But the more pressing issue is how to get expats to exercise the right they already have. In a recent survey of expat voting, the ULB’s Centre for the Study of Political Life found that voter participation was higher in communes that made an effort to connect with expats. So that is what is happening now in several communes across Brussels, including Etterbeek and Ixelles.
With funding from the EU and support from the Migration Policy Group, the Vote Brussels Campaign aims to encourage more EU nationals to vote in the election on 14 October. Teams of volunteers have been recruited to explain the practicalities of the Belgian system and to get people to sign up. “Expats can make a difference,” said Vote Brussels volunteer Julija Sproge in an interview with Bruzz newspaper. You can invite an expert from the Vote Brussels Campaign to come to talk to your group for five minutes. Or watch a 55-second video to get in the mood.
The Expat Welcome Desk is also working to boost the vote among the city’s EU residents with a campaign headed “Think European, Vote Local.” They have put together a detailed guide to voting in Belgium on the website www.commissioner.brussels. The welcome desk team know from past experience that it is difficult to get expats to vote, so they have started an awareness campaign targeting all European and local administrations.
It is actually very simple to register. You can download the voter registration form at www.commissioner.brussels or your commune’s website or pick up a paper copy at your local town hall. Complete and sign the form, send it with a photocopy of your Belgian ID by ordinary mail to your commune or drop it off there before 31 July 2018. Your registration will be confirmed by post.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t use our right to vote, we have no right to complain,” as one volunteer observed.
For more info visit www.commissioner.brussels or contact the Expat Welcome Desk at +32 (0)2 430 66 00.
By Derek Blyth
The Brussels Times