Voting rights for immigrants: Next Stop, Berlin?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

What can campaigners learn from MIPEX and international research?

Jede Stimme: Every Vote

Berlin’s state elections are next week, 18 September. German media report that the Centre-left looks ready for re-election. One issue that may get on the agenda is voting rights for the city’s estimated 460,000 legally-resident third-country nationals of voting age. A campaign called Jede Stimme 2011  (or “Every Vote 2011”) is picking up steam among politicians and the press. The two NGOs behind the campaign are Jede Stimme, founded by a Social Democratic Party Deputy, and Citizens for Europe, a non-partisan organisation of young Europeans for cosmopolitan citizenship and political participation across the EU. Last week, 3000 potential non-EU voters participated in a symbolic election, with the big winners being the Social Democratic Party, Greens, and socialist Left party. Yesterday, British Council Germany invited me to speak at Jede Stimme 2011’s International Workshop on migrant political participation in neighbouring European cities and regions.

Based on MIPEX, analysis of the results, and other international research, here are some highlights from my presentation:

European standards?

1992 Council of Europe “Convention on the participation of foreigners in public life at the local level” (ETS No. 144) is the only European legal standard that is directly relevant for the political participation of non-EU immigrants. They are guaranteed equal rights to media and political association, some sort of consultative body elected or appointed by their own communities, and local passive voting rights after maximum 5 years’ residence. According to my unofficial MIPEX assessment, the Convention provides a basic foundation, scoring 37/100 on the MIPEX scale, which means the policy would not be wholly unfavourable for political participation:

Ratification has been limited and slowing over time. The mostly Western European signatories already had policies meeting the Convention’s minimum standards, meaning that ratification has ironically not led to more political rights for foreign residents. Instead, States secured the implementation of these rights by taking on this international legal obligation.

European support

EU Member States agreed to make political participation part of their 11 Common Basic Principles on Integration:

#9 The participation of immigrants in the democratic process and in the formulation of integration policies and measures, especially at the local level, supports their integration.

The European Commission, through its Communications and technical cooperation, has tried to interest Member States in supporting migrant political participation and voting rights. European Commission has used past MIPEX results to suggest that citizenship and political participation policies need to improve if integration ministers want to promote democratic participation, solidarity and sense of belonging in society. Member States can also use the European Integration Fund is to “increase of civic, cultural and political participation of third country nationals in the host society.” The European Parliament has also given non-EU voting rights clear and consistent support since 1996, in addition to other bodies like the EU Economic and Social Committee, Committee of Regions, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

Policies in European countries

No trade-off exists between granting political rights for immigrants and facilitating their naturalisation, as many readily assume in public debates. In fact, MIPEX consistently finds that the two are related: Newcomers are more encouraged to participate politically as foreigners in the very countries that encourage them to become citizens (e.g. Nordic countries, Benelux countries, Anglophone countries, and Portugal). Where government is only directly accountable to citizens, it is often harder for an immigrant to become one (e.g. Central Europe, Baltics, Eastern Mediterranean).

Most immigrants have few opportunities to inform and improve the policies that affect them daily. In Europe, voting rights set apart most established countries of immigration from the very new countries of immigration. The Nordic countries and Ireland grant local and regional voting rights to a wide scope of legal residents.

EU citizens from one Member State have the right to vote and stand in local elections in any of the 26 other Member States. Non-EU citizens have the local right to vote in 18 European countries and over half the EU Member States:

Non-EU residents can also stand as candidates in municipal elections in 13:

They can vote regionally in 7 countries and even nationally in 2 (Portugal and United Kingdom):

Changes and trends

Reforming political rights takes time since countries must work within their own national constitutional order, without obligations from the European level. Established countries of immigration with less favourable frameworks, especially on voting rights, need either constitutional changes (AustriaGermanyItalyPortugalSpain) or greater political will (France).

North and Northwestern European countries were the first to grant local voting rights in late 1970s and early 1980s. There is a renewed interest in recent years, first with the Czech Republic in 2001, followed by Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia in 2002, Luxembourg and Slovakia in 2003, Belgium in 2004, and recently Greece in 2010. None of these countries have ratified the Council of Europe Convention No. 144, meaning that this trend is not the direct result of European legal standards.

Breaking the symbolic link between voting rights and nationality can instigate a process that eventually extends that right to most foreigners at various levels of governance. For instance, the voting rights that were initially introduced for Nordic citizens in the Nordic countries or EU citizens in the Benelux countries were later extended to all non-nationals.

Campaigning for electoral rights is an incremental process but can have lasting outcomes. Once granted, electoral rights are not revoked or seriously challenged. In practice, letting immigrants participate in elections before their naturalisation has few implementation and maintenance costs. What’s more, few of the supposedly negative effects often raised in debates play out in practice (e.g. greater foreign influence, ethnic parties, and radical overturn of status quo).

Public opinion is also a key factor, since countries with higher MIPEX scores on political participation have publics that are more favourable to the idea of having more ethnic diversity among their national MPs:

A favourable public opinion might push policy change (as in France today). But public attitudes may also improve once policies are changed (as in The Netherlands in the late 1980s).


Large numbers of non-EU nationals have used the vote when countries have granted them this right. Their voter registration and participation rates are generally lower than for nationals. Encouragingly, their participation often increases as they spend more time in the country and naturalise. Immigrant voters also tend to vote and join mainstream political parties. These statistics also depend on changes in the non-EU population (migration flows and naturalisation rates) and the importance of the campaign for these voters.

Qualitative and quantitative surveys and analysis suggests that the foreign-born across Europe are slightly less active than the native-born in various forms of conventional civic participation. However, analysis of the European Social Survey suggests that the differences between foreign- and native-born almost disappear once observers take into account less conventional and visible forms of participation where the foreign-born are more active, such as informal help, humanitarian aid, and movements for human and immigrant rights.