European Union citizens in Belgium have the right to vote in local and European elections , but non-EU immigrants go mostly unheard and unseen on the political radar screen.
Despite enjoying many of the same rights as Belgians, thousands of long-term legal residents live in the political shadows. Whether of African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Eastern European or American origin, these people lead their lives – for the most part – as decent, law-abiding citizens. These expatriates work, pay taxes, contribute to the welfare system, and obey the country's legal code but they cannot vote.
That means they may walk and talk like citizens, but they differ in one important respect: although the decisions of the political apparatus affect them, they cannot hold politicians to account. Such political muteness can be frustrating and alienating because it sends a message that immigrants are welcome to pay but that doesn't give them the right to play.
The right to participate politically has inched a small step closer. A Senate select committee adopted a draft bill that proposes to grant immigrants from outside the European Union similar local voting rights to their EU counterparts. According to the proposed legislation, expats from outside the EU who have been living here for five years or more will be granted the right to vote in municipal elections but not to stand as candidates.
The proposed right to vote is ‘passive', meaning that for a person to be granted it they have to seek it actively. In addition to having to register, the draft legislation proposes that prospective voters must also sign a declaration that they understand Belgian law and will uphold the constitution.
Although this is obviously designed to ease popular fears about the ramifications of granting expatriates the vote, it is entirely unnecessary and somewhat insulting. Voting is a fundamental democratic right that cannot be preconditioned regardless of a person's personal views.
On a more practical level, just like citizens, immigrants engage in a tacit social contract that they will play by the legal and constitutional rules or face the consequences. Moreover, putting obstacles in the way of immigrants wishing to exercise this fundamental democratic right actually hurts the cause of democracy.
The usual suspects on the extreme right spoke out vocally against the draft bill: the Vlaams Blok in Flanders and its smaller cousin, the National Front (FN) in Walloonia. Although all the other Walloon parties expressed their support for the legislation, their Flemish counterparts were more reticent. On the Dutch-speaking side, only the socialist SP.A and its ally Spirit came out clearly in favour, while the liberal VLD and the Christian-democrat CD&V expressed reservations.
The leader of the ruling coalition, the VLD, believes that only naturalised immigrants should have the right to vote.
In the case of the Vlaams Blok and the FN, their motivation is easy to figure out. Convinced, for their own xenophobic reasons, that the country is overrun by foreigners, they want immigrants to leave, they don't want to make them feel more at home. The Vlaams Blok couches its arguments in the alarming terms that allowing people with ‘alien values' to wield a lobby can derail the course of democracy and threaten the very fabric of society. What the VB really means by this is that giving non-EU residents the right to vote will damage the party's chances at the polls since few immigrants in their right mind would vote for them.
The motivation of their mainstream counterparts is harder to pin down. Although xenophobia cannot be entirely ruled out, real politick seems to be the main driving force behind their reservations. Given that one recent poll found some 70% of Belgians are against granting immigrants the vote, it is perhaps unsurprising that centre and centre-right politicians are not lining up to defend the rights of this voiceless minority. In a telling admission, some CD&V representatives have warned that granting immigrants the vote could further bolster support for the Vlaams Blok.
With all this talk about the importance of integrating immigrants, it rings a little hollow that there should be so much resistance to this project from the political centre. Jeannine Leduc, a VLD senator, cautioned that “the right to vote solves nothing” and it would actually be “deceiving immigrants” to grant them it.
The senator is probably right that this proposal will not solve the economic and social difficulties encountered by many immigrants. However, it will send out a resounding vote of confidence in the immigrant community and will tell them that they are valued and equal members of society. Such an invitation to join the mainstream will also encourage young immigrants to take a more constructive and positive attitude towards their role in the community.
Redefining Citizen X
The question of immigrant voting rights is not exclusively a Belgian issue but has an international dimension. European countries and the United States are all grappling with this thorny issue. Italy is currently embroiled in a row over whether or not to grant immigrants limited voting rights, which has provoked vocal opposition from the far-right Northern League.
Across the Atlantic, local authorities in the United States are also struggling with the issue. New York is currently considering whether to allow green card-holding foreign residents – who make up a significant percentage of the city's population – to vote in municipal elections.
As a testimony to the increasingly cosmopolitan world in which we live, it is estimated that in the EU alone between 15 and 20 million people are legally resident but are not nationals of any of the 15 member states. With Europe's growing economic need for new blood to keep the economy turning and the welfare system alive for its ageing population, this trend is set to rise.
Belgium and other parts of Europe need to learn from the lessons of previous large-scale post-war migrations. They need to address the frustration and marginalisation – and their attendant problems – currently felt by second and third-generation immigrants and avoid this occurring with more recent arrivals. The best way to do this is to regard immigrants as more than human resources and expand the definition of citizenship.
In the more fluid times before the concept of the modern nation state took root, a citizen was simply the inhabitant of a city or a town who was free to take part in its civic life. Our overly restrictive definition of citizenry does not stand the test of the reality of the modern world. One day, in the not too distant future, countries will find themselves granting residents not only the right to vote in local elections but also in national ones.
Despite the presence of the far right, Belgium has long been at the avant garde of European progressiveness and tolerance. In addition to being one of the founders of the EU, it has done much to give its minorities more rights, such as legalising gay marriages. Regardless of whether immigrants are ‘aliens' or not, as productive members of society they have an inalienable right to be heard.
This article appeared on Expatica on 21 November 2003.