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Europeans must keep building a more inclusive democracy

Friday, 05 March 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

How much do Europeans really care about democracy? Since the start of the year, we have seen a failed insurrection in the United States and a military coup in Myanmar but democracy is also on the defensive in Europe.

Belarus is a case apart but even inside the EU, states like Hungary are far from being in the top division when it comes to proving their democratic credentials. One indication of how committed the EU is in practice to the democratic values enshrined in the Treaties is the way that EU citizens are treated when they move from one member state to another within the EU or outside the EU altogether.

Freedom of movement should entail being able to move within the EU without loss of rights. While the current legislation allows mobile citizens to vote and stand for election in municipal elections, they are not allowed to do so in regional elections in many EU states, including Germany.

When it comes to European elections, mobile citizens have to choose between voting in the member state where they reside or voting in their member state of origin. This often leads, due to the administrative complications linked to the exercise of this choice, to mobile citizens not voting at all.

In the last European elections to take place in the UK before Brexit, it is estimated that up to 1.7m EU citizens and Britons abroad were denied a vote for that reason. Over 155k citizens in the UK have now signed a petition calling for a public inquiry.

When EU citizens go to live in another EU member state, they will most likely not have the right to vote in national elections there and may even lose the right to vote in their member state of origin. That is a democratic lacuna and it now affects over 17m EU citizens.

Voting in all elections

A European Citizens Initiative (ECI) called Voters Without Borders aims to push the Commission to address this by bringing forward legislation to ensure that voters can automatically vote in all elections wherever they reside in the EU and to remove obstacles to voting and standing in elections across borders.

The initiative has won support from a number of MEPs including Damian Boeselager (Greens/EFA) and Karen Melchior (Renew). Anna Comacchio, coordinator of the initiative said:

“We believe every citizen residing in another member state is contributing not only to the wealth of the country but to the Europeanisation of our societies. Integration, for us, means that our borders are becoming weaker and our ties stronger.”

Part of the problem with granting the franchise in national elections to mobile EU citizens lies in the persistence of provisions in the constitutions of some member states such as France, Italy and Poland which allow for their diaspora to vote from abroad.

This gives rise to the prospect of some mobile citizens voting twice, once as a diaspora voter in their member state of origin and once in the member state where they live. Democratic theory emphasises one person, one vote as the foundation of political equality.

A way round the challenge of double counting would be to allow citizens to choose between voting in national elections in the member state where they live or in their member state of origin, but not both. However, some still fear such a system would be open to abuse.

What can go wrong if a solution is not found to facilitate a more inclusive approach is aptly shown by the ‘vote denied’ scandals from 2014 and 2019 in the UK when hundreds of thousands of EU citizens and Britons abroad were unable to take part in European elections. Only recently did Britain confirm that it will abolish a rule which debars British emigrants from voting in the UK after 15 years abroad.

Inclusive democracy

The voting rights of EU citizens are even more unstable outside the territory of the EU – some EU citizens are able to still vote remotely in European elections for example while others are not. Such a system fails to respect the principle of one citizen, one vote.

Many have rightly watched in awe as the defenceless population of Belarus seeks to assert its legitimate expectation that democracy should mean rule by the majority. The human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, militia violence and assaults of peaceful women protestors by masked men in balaclavas represent a level of voter suppression on a different scale to what we have experienced in the rest of Europe.

Dictators can be quick to point out that Europeans and Americans also face challenges when it comes to safe-guarding democracy. Joe Biden admitted  as much in a speech following the Myanmar coup in which he referred to the 6 January insurrection on Capitol Hill.

Events in Washington and Hungary, let alone in Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, are a stark reminder that we cannot take democratic values for granted anywhere in the world, that it takes a long time for a democratic culture to take root and that no democracy is perfect.

A free society is in a constant state of becoming and no democrat will ever claim that democracy is a ‘perfect’ system of government. When autocrats point to short-comings they simply reveal how ignorant they are about what democratic culture and values are all about.

When we the citizens bang the drum for democratic values around the world, we should remember that the work of building a more inclusive democracy in Europe is far from complete. As society changes and becomes more mobile, so our constitutional arrangements, including the franchise need to adapt, too.

Dr Ruvi Ziegler, an expert in the study of the way in which the voting rights of mobile citizens have evolved in the course of the EU’s history, has pointed out that the emphasis shifted between the Maastricht and the Lisbon Treaties towards placing a greater emphasis on the link between MEPs and the citizens they represent (see NewEuropeansTV)

As European society becomes more integrated, so the issues that mobile citizenship throws up become more complex. Sooner or later, Europeans will need to find an answer to the question, who decides my right to vote? It will be a key moment in the development of a European ‘demos’, the normative foundations of our common European home.

By Roger Casale