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ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

Non-EU nationals living in Europe don't have many voting rights but some countries do allow them to cast a ballot in local elections. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?
Where in Europe can foreigners cast a ballot in local elections? (Photo by LAURA BOUSHNAK / AFP)

In December 2021 the New York City Council passed a law granting local voting rights to non-USA citizens with permanent residence (the “green card”) or a valid work authorisation, starting from 2023. 

Whether the decision will become reality is still in question, as the law is being challenged in the Supreme Court. But for the time being, New York joins Chicago, San Francisco and some other US municipalities allowing foreign nationals to vote. 

As this happens in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what is the situation in Europe? The answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The general principle is that voting rights are based on citizenship and each country makes its own rules. When electoral rights are granted to non-nationals, these are usually limited to local elections and do not extend to national ones. So neither EU nationals or non-EU citizens are able to vote for example in French presidential elections or German parliamentary elections, unless of course they have taken citizenship in those countries.

Common arrangements are established at the European Union level for EU citizens who move to other member states. They can vote in municipal elections in the country where they live and can choose to vote in the host country or at home for the election of the European Parliament.

In addition, some EU countries have signed other regional or bilateral agreements that guarantee voting rights to non-nationals. 

So where can non-EU citizens vote in the European Union? This is where things stand in the EU and in particular in the nine European countries covered by The Local.

The Nordics

In addition to EU citizens, Denmark allows all non-nationals to vote in local elections as long as they have at least four years of residence. 

Sweden, Finland and Norway (which is not part of the EU) have similar rules, but in Sweden and Norway the residency requirement is three years and in Finland it is two years on the 51st day before the election.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland also mutually guarantee the right to vote for municipal and regional councils as part of the Nordic Passport Union. 

Spain’s bilateral agreements

Another country that grants municipal voting rights to some citizens beyond the EU is Spain. Madrid has signed bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, the UK, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea and Trinidad y Tobago. The residency requirement is set in each agreement.

Other EU countries that grant local voting rights to non-EU citizens are Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia. Again, each country has its own residency requirements. 

Portugal has agreements on voting rights in local elections with Brazil, Cape Verde, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, as well as with the UK for citizens who were living in the country before Brexit. Some Brazilian residents have full voting rights in Portugal.

Ongoing debates

Austria, France, Germany and Italy do not allow non-EU citizens to take part in local elections, although the issue has been debated in recent years. This would require constitutional changes, however. 

In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, foreign nationals do not have the right to vote at federal level but they can participate in some cantonal and communal elections. Information on the political rights of non-Swiss citizens is available from this map on the Swiss Confederation website.

A special situation concerns UK citizens in the EU, who have lost the automatic right to vote in municipal elections when the country left the bloc. They can still vote, however, where this is allowed to non-EU citizens and the British government has negotiated bilateral agreements on local voting rights with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. 

But do foreigners bother voting? 

Having the right to vote, however, does not necessarily mean exercising it. The European Commission has found that electoral participation of EU citizens living in other EU countries is below average. 

Among the difficulties there are a lack of awareness about voting rights, the sometimes burdensome registration requirements, the lack of familiarity with the voting system or with local politics, as well as language problems.

In November the Commission proposed changes to current rules asking member states to better inform EU citizens about their rights and make information available in at least one other language. 

The ECIT Foundation, a group working on EU citizenship in Brussels, said the Commission could be more ambitious. The group requested in particular the creation of “dedicated helpdesk” for EU citizens moving across borders to “proactively engage with electoral rights before, during and after elections to maintain a constant engagement of electoral participation.”

ECIT Founder Tony Venables noted that, in some countries, the extension of voting rights to EU nationals has led to the inclusion of non-EU citizens too and better information about elections is likely to benefit also non-EU citizens. 

The ECIT Foundation is among the organisations behind the European citizens initiative “Voters without borders” which is calling on the EU to grant full political rights to EU citizens moving around the bloc. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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EUROPEAN UNION

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

Non-EU citizens living in the European Union are eligible for a special residence status that allows them to move to another country in the bloc. Getting the permit is not simple but may get easier, explains Claudia Delpero.

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

The European Commission proposed this week to simplify residence rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the European Union.

The intention is to ease procedures in three areas: acquiring EU long-term residence status, moving to other EU countries and improving the rights of family members. 

But the new measures will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council, which is made of national ministers. Will EU governments support them?

What is EU long-term residence?

Non-EU citizens who live in EU countries on a long-term basis are eligible for long-term residence status, nationally and at the EU level. 

This EU status can be acquired if the person has lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years, has not been away for more than 6 consecutive months and 10 months over the entire period, and can prove to have “stable and regular economic resources” and health insurance. Applicants can also be required to meet “integration conditions”, such as passing a test on the national language or culture knowledge. 

The EU long-term residence permit is valid for at least five years and is automatically renewable. But the status can be lost if the holder leaves the EU for more than one year (the EU Court of Justice recently clarified that being physically in the EU for a few days in a 12-month period is enough to maintain the status).

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: How many non-EU citizens live in European Union countries?

Long-term residence status grants equal treatment to EU nationals in areas such as employment and self-employment or education. In addition, EU long-term residence grants the possibility to move to other EU countries under certain conditions. 

What does the European Commission want to change?

The European Commission has proposed to make it easier to acquire EU long-term residence status and to strengthen the rights associated with it. 

Under new measures, non-EU citizens should be able to cumulate residence periods in different EU countries to reach the 5-year requirement, instead of resetting the clock at each move. 

This, however, will not apply to individuals who used a ‘residence by investment’ scheme to gain rights in the EU, as the Commission wants to “limit the attractiveness” of these routes and not all EU states offer such schemes. 

All periods of legal residence should be fully counted towards the 5 years, including those spent as students, beneficiaries of temporary protection or on temporary grounds. Stays under a short-term visa do not count.

Children who are born or adopted in the EU country having issued the EU long-term residence permit to their parents should acquire EU long-term resident status in that country automatically, without residence requirement, the Commission added.

READ ALSO: Why it may get easier for non-EU citizens to move to another European Union country

EU countries should also avoid imposing a minimum income level for the resources condition but consider the applicant’s individual circumstances, the Commission suggests.

Integration tests should not be too burdensome or expensive, nor should they be requested for long-term residents’ family reunifications. 

The Commission also proposed to extend from 12 to 24 months the possibility to leave the EU without losing status, with facilitated procedures (no integration test) for the re-acquisition of status after longer absences.

A person who has already acquired EU long-term residence status in one EU country should only need three years to acquire the same status in another EU member state. But the second country could decide whether to wait the completion of the five years before granting social benefits. 

The proposal also clarifies that EU long-term residents should have the same right as EU nationals with regard to the acquisition of private housing and the export of pensions, when moving to a third country. 

Why make these changes?

Although EU long-term residence exists since 2006, few people have benefited. “The long-term residents directive is under-used by the member states and does not provide for an effective right to mobility within the EU,” the Commission says. 

Around 3.1 million third-country nationals held long-term residence permits for the EU in 2017, compared to 7.1 million holding a national one. “we would like to make the EU long-term residence permit more attractive,” said European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

The problems are the conditions to acquire the status, too difficult to meet, the barriers faced when moving in the EU, the lack of consistency in the rights of long-term residents and their family members and the lack of information about the scheme.

Most EU member states continue to issue “almost exclusively” national permits unless the applicant explicitly asks for the EU one, an evaluation of the directive has shown.

READ ALSO: Pensions in the EU: What you need to know if you’re moving country

This proposal is part of a package to “improve the EU’s overall attractiveness to foreign talent”, address skill shortages and facilitate integration in the EU labour market of people fleeing Ukraine. 

On 1 January 2021, 23.7 million non-EU nationals were residing in the EU, representing 5.3% of the total population. Between 2.25 to 3 million non-EU citizens move to the EU every year. More than 5 million people have left Ukraine for neighbouring states since the beginning of the war in February. 

Will these measures also apply to British citizens?

These measures also apply to British citizens, whether they moved to an EU country before or after Brexit. 

The European Commission has recently clarified that Britons living in the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement can apply for a long-term residence too.

As Britons covered by the Withdrawal Agreement have their residence rights secured only in the country where they lived before Brexit, the British in Europe coalition recommended those who need mobility rights to seek EU long-term residence status. 

These provisions do not apply in Denmark and Ireland, which opted out of the directive.

What happens next?

The Commission proposals will have to be discussed and agreed upon by the European Parliament and Council. This is made of national ministers, who decide by qualified majority. During the process, the proposals can be amended or even scrapped. 

In 2021, the European Parliament voted through a resolution saying that third-country nationals who are long-term residents in the EU should have the right to reside permanently in other EU countries, like EU citizens. The Parliament also called for the reduction of the residency requirement to acquire EU long-term residence from five to three years.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: Which EU countries grant citizenship to the most people?

EU governments will be harder to convince. However, presenting the package, Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said proposals are likely to be supported because “they fit in a broader framework”, which represents the “construction” of the “EU migration policy”. 

National governments are also likely to agree because large and small employers face skill shortages, “especially in areas that are key to our competitiveness, like agri-food, digital, tourism, healthcare… we need people,” Schinas said.

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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