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It’s time to give migrants the vote

By Iana Dreyer

“No taxation without representation” is a basic democratic principle. Surely that should apply to long-term foreign residents too?

The evidence is overwhelming: immigrants generally enrich the countries they move to, both economically and culturally. They do valuable work, start businesses, stimulate innovation, create jobs, pay taxes and boost economic growth – all of which benefits local residents. Why, then, are politicians often so hostile to them? One reason, surely, is that many migrants can’t vote. It’s time to change that. It’s not just a matter of human rights, it’s about bringing democracy into the 21st century.

Electing the people who craft a country’s laws requires a durable commitment to that political community. Long-term foreign residents have made that. And since their lives are shaped by the laws of the country they moved to and they pay taxes in the same way as locals do, they surely deserve a say in how that country is governed.

That need is particularly pressing now that nativists are in the ascendant in many countries, governments are responding by curtailing migrants’ rights and immigrants are often powerless to fight back. The likes of Brexit and President Trump are stripping long-term foreign residents of their rights – including the right to stay in the country where they have settled and built a life over many years and sometimes decades.

Trump, for instance, isn’t just seeking to slash future migration to the United States; he’s throwing out long-established Haitian and Salvadoran residents and stripping young Dreamers’ right to regularise their situation. His initial travel ban denied green-card holders (permanent residents) from certain Muslim countries the right to return to the US.

Resisting nativism

Nativists are on a roll right now. They are in power in the US, Austria, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, in coalition in other countries and enjoy huge influence as opposition parties in many more. “Mainstream” parties increasingly collaborate with far-right ones and emulate their rhetoric and policies; witness the recent elections in Austria. Even ostensibly liberal and progressive politicians often fail to stand up for open, diverse societies and all the benefits they bring.

One reason why nativists enjoy outsized influence is that their enemies lack political power. In the UK, for instance, 8.9% of the population in 2015 were foreign citizens. Non-nationals account for nearly a quarter of Switzerland’s population, more than a tenth of Germany’s and 7% of the US’s.

While many locals are sympathetic to migrants’ plight, they aren’t directly affected by assaults on their rights. And since foreigners don’t have the vote, politicians can readily ignore them. Several EU citizens living in Britain whom I have met in recent months have complained to me that their local MP had refused to receive them.

Many in Britain and elsewhere will argue that the solution is for long-term residents to acquire local citizenship and thus the right to vote. Partly, yes. But it’s often not as simple as that.

Acquiring a new citizenship is often difficult, burdensome and expensive. In countries whose nationality law is based primarily on the principle of jus sanguinis (right of blood) such as Italy and Austria, it is very difficult for a migrant without the requisite ancestry to acquire citizenship. In Switzerland, where migrants also need to jump through all sorts of hoops set by the local canton, a legally resident American was denied citizenship after living in the country for almost 40 years! While Germany’s reforms to its nationality law in 2000 make it much easier for migrants’ German-born children to acquire citizenship, it is still tough for migrants themselves.

Citizenship laws in France and Britain are in principle more liberal, but in practice naturalisation is increasingly complex and costly. Britain has introduced absurd citizenship tests and excessive naturalisation fees. In France, naturalisation remains a discretionary administrative process that frequently leads to arbitrary decisions.

Worse, both countries refuse to apply standard rule-of-law principles to their naturalisation processes. Britain did not sign the 1997 European Convention on Nationality hosted by the (non-EU) Council of Europe in Strasbourg; France did not ratify it. That convention commits signatories to basic due-process principles for naturalisations, such as non-discrimination on the basis of “sex [gender], religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin”, as well as the right to a family life.

Another complication with naturalisation is restrictions on dual citizenship. Spain, the Netherlands, India and other countries do not allow dual nationality in most cases, so nationals of those countries would need to give up their citizenship in order to vote elsewhere.

Sometimes foreigners may not realise the need to defend their rights before it is too late. Because of the EU’s freedom of movement directive, most EU citizens felt secure in the UK before the Brexit vote, so few sought UK citizenship. Yet Brexit is now set to gut those rights, as the 3 million campaign has highlighted.

Democratic empowerment

EU citizens residing in another EU member state already have the right to vote in local elections; why not extend that right to national ones? After all, Commonwealth citizens in the UK can vote in national ballots – and were able to vote in the Brexit referendum too. Yet the 3 million EU citizens whose rights were abrogated by the vote to leave the EU were not. How is that fair?

The argument for giving long-term foreign residents the vote is both principled and practical. “No taxation without representation” is a key democratic principle. People who participate fully in society, pay taxes and contribute to local communities should have a say in how that society is run and how those taxes are raised and used. They also need stronger guarantees that their human rights to live where they have settled will be respected.

Giving settled migrants the vote would also be a bulwark against the nativist nationalism that threatens our increasingly diverse societies. Nativism creates political instability, as Brexit Britain and Trump’s United States show. It is linked to protectionism, which harms our economies. The nativist fixation with cracking down on migrants also erodes the basis of our democracy: the rule of law.

Let’s face it: our political systems have failed to keep pace with economic and social change. Over time, the democratic franchise has been progressively extended – to women, the working class and the young. Each move was highly contested at the time; with hindsight, the fact that some people were once denied the vote seems outrageous.

In a world where mobility is a fact of life, granting settled, taxpaying migrants the right to vote in national elections is an important step in bringing democracy up to date. It’s time to be bold and give long-term foreign residents the vote.


Iana Dreyer is a senior fellow at OPEN and the founder of Borderlex, a newsletter on European trade policy.


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