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Electoral rights of EU citizens [What is Europe doing for its citizens?]

Written by Laura Tilindyte,


© DURIS Guillaume / Fotolia

EU Treaties establish the right of every Union citizen to participate in the democratic life of the Union (Article 10 TEU). This includes those who have made use of their rights of free movement and reside in a Member State other than that of their nationality. Such citizens can vote and stand as candidates in European elections in their host country under the same conditions as nationals of that state. The same applies for municipal elections in the state of residence.

Voting rights for ‘foreigners’? Rationale and development

Traditionally, political participation rights have been reserved for those with a special bond of allegiance to a state, i.e. its nationals. From its inception, the (then) European Economic Community, established in 1957, explicitly aimed at removing obstacles to free movement of persons. However, the scope for political participation of those making use of their free movement rights was limited. From the 1970s, the European Parliament and Commission called for the political rights of citizens moving across borders to be extended, including to local voting rights. These calls gained momentum in 1990, when the Spanish government called for the establishment of a European Union citizenship, including ‘special rights and duties that are specific to the nature of the Union’. The legal concept of Union citizenship was introduced in the Treaty on European Union, signed in Maastricht in 1992. Union citizenship not only strengthened free movement and residence rights of Union citizens; it also introduced a set of novel rights, including electoral rights. By providing for political participation rights of non-national residents, and thereby enabling them to influence laws and policies of their host Member States, Union citizenship constituted a fairly unique experiment.

What rights for (migrant) EU citizens? The legal framework

Union citizens, who use the free movement rights granted to them by the Treaties, have the right to vote and to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament and in municipal elections in their Member State of residence, under the same conditions as nationals of that state (Articles 20 and 22 TFEU and Article 40 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights). The detailed arrangements for the exercise of this right are laid down in two directives (Directive 94/80/EC and Directive 93/109/EC). They provide for limited derogations, for example by allowing Member States with a particularly high proportion of non-national Union citizens to require additional periods of residence.

It should be emphasised that the right to vote and stand for election covers municipal and European elections, but does not extend to national elections, which arguably remain the most high-profile elections in Member States. In this context, a European Parliament resolution of 16 February 2017 called, inter alia, to extend these rights to ‘all remaining elections’ not covered by the current Treaty provisions.

Electoral rights in practice

Generally, Union citizens do not seem to exercise their electoral rights as actively as they could. Regarding European Parliament elections, for example, overall turnout is low compared to national parliament elections, and has steadily declined since the first direct elections in 1979. This is despite the fact that the Parliament’s role has increased significantly over that period. According to Eurostat, in the 2014 European elections, turnout for the 28 Member States was 42.5 %, compared to an average 68 % in national elections. Nonetheless, turnout rates in European elections vary greatly among Member States: in 2014, from 13 % in Slovakia to 89.6 % in Belgium (where voting is compulsory). According to a Eurobarometer survey on Electoral Rights 2015, most people think turnout would be higher if more information were provided on the elections, the impact of the EU on citizens’ daily lives, and the programmes and objectives of candidates.

This note has been prepared by EPRS for the European Parliament’s Open Days in May 2017.

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