Updated | Labour ministers shoot down voting rights proposal for non-EU nationals

Proposal to study prospect of allowing non-EU nationals to vote in local council elections turned down by Cabinet

Bold: Helena Dalli is a champion of civil liberties and equality
Bold: Helena Dalli is a champion of civil liberties and equality

A proposal to give third country nationals and non-EU migrant workers the possibility to vote in local council elections, was “shot down” by ministers during a Cabinet meeting earlier on Tuesday.

Government sources told MaltaToday that EU affairs and equality minister Helena Dalli found no support among a majority of Cabinet colleagues when she asked for the go-ahead to launch a study into the possibility of allowing foreigners from outside the EU residing in Malta to vote in local council elections after 2019.

The reaction of the other ministers appears to have been particularly vocal and vehement, with one senior minister describing the idea as “mad”, while another minister asking if “we wanted an African mayor in Marsa” – the source said.

MaltaToday was shown a copy of Dalli’s position paper, entitled “Voting Rights in Local Elections for Third-Country Nationals (TCNs)”, in which she says that promoting TCNs’ participation in local politics would portray Malta as a country open to immigration.

This, the minister said in the paper’s introduction, would be in line with the Migrant Integration Strategy and Action 2017-2020 – however such voting rights do not feature in the actual strategy.

A ministry source who spoke to MaltaToday admitted that the proposal is not part of the government’s integration plans, but was advanced as a discussion point.

“Promoting TCNs’ political participation is the sign of a confident country that is open to immigration, whereas restrictive policies disenfranchise those who contribute to the country’s development,” Dalli’s paper to the Cabinet reads.

In her presentation, Dalli called on Cabinet to approve the setting-up of a working group to draw up a report on the “logistical implications for the granting of voting rights to TCNs in local elections post-2019”.

The working group envisaged would have been chaired by the Human Rights and Integration Directorate, and included representatives of the justice and local councils ministry, the Electoral Commission, the Forum for Integration Affairs, and the Local Councils Association.

But MaltaToday is informed that no discussion was actually held since Dalli’s proposal found no support among her colleagues and was met with disdain.

Sources reported that vocal opponents to the plan included economy and home affairs ministers Chris Cardona and Michael Farrugia, with even education minister Evarist Bartolo remarking that the proposal would find no popular foothold.

The general consensus among ministers and parliamentary secretaries was that the country was not ready for such a move. Instead, ministers approved a migrant integration plan for Dalli to launch later on in the month.

In her paper, Dalli acknowledged the challenges and the outrage that her proposal could provoke. But she insisted that although granting political rights to migrants could be considered “a fairly controversial topic in the field of integration”, granting political rights to TCNs would provide a means of expression as well as a sensitisation towards responsibilities. This, she says, would create greater balance between migrant rights and responsibilities in the host locality.

Controversial proposal

The feeling inside the Labour Cabinet resonates with the results of recent surveys: in April 2018, a Eurobarometer survey found that 60% of the Maltese do not consider granting immigrants the vote in local election as beneficial to their integration.

The survey found that Malta was one of 14 EU countries where less than half of those polled agreed integration was successful in their country. The percentage varied between under a quarter (24%) of respondents in Bulgaria to nearly half (49%) of those surveyed in France, Greece, Malta and Slovakia. Only 35% of Maltese think that the acquisition of citizenship is important for integration. This contrasts with the view of citizens in 24 Member States in which a majority of respondents think it is important.

The survey showed that the Maltese were among the least in Europe to interact with immigrants. 31% of the Maltese interact with immigrants ‘less than once a year or never’ in childcare centres, schools or universities. Over six in ten Maltese polled in the survey said that immigration was more of a problem. Only 28% of the Maltese think that immigrants enrich Malta’s cultural life. 

In her paper to the Cabinet, Dalli said that effective and successful integration will only happen when Malta manages to do well across all key integration indicators, namely labour market mobility, education, political participation, access to nationality, family reunion, health, permanent residence, and anti-discrimination.

“One of the key factors in the process of integration is for migrants to feel invested in and to make valid contributions to their new country of residence,” the paper reads. “Civic participation is important as it supports integration by enhancing the role of migrants as residents and as participation in a democratic society. This can be achieved through effective and strong political participation at the local level.”

Dalli said that any changes to law and policy would need to be backed by a “clear and unequivocal message by Government” encouraging interaction between Maltese and foreign-born residents.

Migrant-related issues would need to be better portrayed, she said, namely by highlighting integration, interculturalism and diversity.

“An effort needs to be made in order to facilitate and encourage migrant participation in mainstream organisations, such as trade unions, women’s organisations, political parties, and local pressure groups.”

EU legislation

The EU does not mandate or regulate the electoral rights of TCNs in member states, which are free to implement their own frameworks. EU nationals can vote in local councils and European elections as residents of any member state.

The realisation of electoral rights within the EU ranges from the inclusion of nearly all non-EU citizens in countries such as Estonia, Ireland and Finland, who can participate in elections at the local level.

Large numbers of non-EU citizens have also been enfranchised at the local level in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, where – after three years residency – all newcomers can also vote and stand in all elections except national general elections.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands grant TCNs the right to vote in local council elections after five years of residency, whereas Estonia allows long-term residents to vote in local elections, but not to stand as candidates.

On the other end of the spectrum, in 11 EU member states including Malta, Romania and Poland, TCNs are completely excluded from electoral participation

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