While the right for foreigners to vote is being debated in several European countries, EU citizens already have certain rights within the continent.
For most municipal and European elections they may vote and be elected in any member state without having the nationality of the country.
However rights that have already been around for 20 years are still often poorly understood, as Ella Fallgred, a Swedish national who has now settled in Italy explained.
She said: “I had always thought that when I retire I am going to live in Italy and that’s what I did. I came and I didn’t know the area at all, and I fell in love with it, so much so that I wanted to become a local councillor.”
After living for 20 years in England, Ella moved to Umbria, Italy five years ago. Upon arrival, she became involved in local life and wished to vote in local elections.
But Ella told us the authorities claimed that she was ineligible to vote: “It surprised me a bit that I couldn’t vote in the local elections because when I lived in England I always voted in the local elections. I knew I couldn’t vote for the government, but I thought I could vote for the local councillors. Then I did some research on the internet and found out that, in fact, I could have voted.”
She has now put her name forward as a candidate for the Green party, but again found herself tied up by red tape.
“The day before we were supposed to hand in our list of candidates they told us that I needed a certificate from Sweden to say that I was eligible to vote and eligible to stand as a councillor. So I spent a day on the phone to people in Sweden trying to get the piece of paper, which I then had to translate and take to the court in Terni.
“Of course that day they were closed, so we had to say please, please. It all worked out very well in the end, but it seemed to me that these people don’t have the right information.”
A lack of information and administrative barriers have often led to low participation of European expatriates in local elections.
Euronews’ Anne Devineaux, who compiled this report, said: “Italy is home to over one million EU citizens who do not have Italian citizenship. Of these, only one in 10 is on the electoral register and is therefore likely to use their right to vote.”
But this issue is not confined to Italy. According to Giovanni Moro, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Rome, it is important to defend this right that all European citizens have.
“In general the low turnout is serious,” he said. “Because the right to vote or be elected in these local elections is a fundamental right of European citizenship which was introduced at the time of the Maastricht Treaty.
“And more importantly, because this law shows that the rights of the EU citizen are based not only on blood or birthplace – the two traditional factors – but is also based on residence, which is something completely new in the history of modern citizenship.”
The Italian city of Martyr de L’Aquila is the scene of more municipal elections. This is the first vote since the earthquake that devastated it three years ago. Today the reconstruction has barely begun in the heart of the city. Many of the workmen have come in from Romania, and the population has increased dramatically.
A dozen Romanians are on list of candidates. Among them, Mariana Muntean. She emphasised the difficulty of mobilising the Romanian electorate: “The problem is that we must first convince citizens to register as voters, and then you have to explain to them how it works, persuade them to vote and accompany them to collect their ballot papers, it’s double the work for our election campaign.”
Two other Romanian candidates, Dumitrela and Ana-Monica have involved themselves in local politics to better integrate into the community. Both aged 30, they have built their lives in L’Aquila and want to contribute to building its future.
“What’s motivated me is the fact that I’ve lived here for eight years,” said Dumitrela. “I bought a house here, I have two sons who were born here and I want to stay here, and I want to be like any other Italian citizen.”
The Romanians are the biggest foreign community in Italy today, but they say they are often made to feel unwelcome. Ana-Monica told us: “I think there will always be differences even if we are European, because there are racist people everywhere, they treat us with indifference, there are still people who treat us as if we’re slaves”.
The young womens’ decision to be candidates was not met with indifference. There were congratulations but also some negative reactions from their own community, as Dumitrela explained: “When a Romanian asks me: ‘Who do you think you are?’ I show him my hands. I’m a candidate but I work like you. I’m a home help.
“I’m at your service and as a Romanian, I can be the link between you and the town hall, between you and the law.”
Looking at another aspect of European citizen’s right to vote, Euronews’ Anne Devineaux found more controversial issues.
“Choosing to live in another EU country can also lead to the loss of voting rights,” Devineaux says. “Some states withdraw the rights of their citizens to vote in national elections if they live outside of their country of origin for too long.”
Six countries: Ireland, Britain, Denmark, Hungry, Malta and Cyprus all place restrictions on their ex-patriots right to vote.
After 15 years outside the country British citizens lose their voting rights. Christopher Chantrey who has been living in Paris for over 30 years finds this absurd and has campaigned actively for a change in the law.
“There is no reason for an arbitrary 15 year cut off point,” he told euronews. “Even if they live abroad, they are still in touch with what’s going on in their home country, they watch television by satellite, they have radio by satellite, they have the internet and the obvious thing is to say: ‘OK, if you are motivated to register to vote, we will let you do that.’”
Others advocate the extension of voting rights for European citizens in all elections, including national elections.
Alain Brun, a member of the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Let Me Vote’, said: “It’s about giving voting rights to European citizens in their country of residence. For example, a French national who is resident in Germany should, in our proposal, have the right to vote in all elections in Germany.”
The Citizens’ Initiative, which is a new tool of participatory democracy, has to collect one million signatures to be valid.
“A million citizens from at least seven member states can put forward a proposal they want to see addressed at the European level. So that in itself is an extremely important mechanism,” added Alain Brun.
Electoral rights are one of many aspects of European citizenship. The European Commission has launched a public consultation to invite everyone to express their views on their rights in the Union and the future of Europe. An assessment will be made next year in 2013, the proposed ‘European Year of Citizens’.