[ANALYSIS] Voting rights for migrant workers: No taxation without representation?

Long read • 2,500 words | They work and spend their money here. Some even invest their savings by opening a business or a company. Shouldn’t they also have a say on how the localities in which they live are governed?

Even in countries where third country nationals are eligible to vote, this right is not granted automatically
Even in countries where third country nationals are eligible to vote, this right is not granted automatically

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has thrown cold water on a suggestion made in cabinet by Equality Minister Helena Dalli to grant voting rights to non-EU nationals in local elections, by pointing out that this was not part of the Labour Party’s manifesto, forgetting that even the citizenship by investment programme, which indirectly grants voting rights to those rich enough to buy citizenship, was introduced in 2014 without being in the party’s 2013 manifesto.

But with Malta becoming more cosmopolitan; can it afford to continue denying the vote to a significant minority of third country nationals who already accounted for 3.6% of Malta’s population in 2009?

Still in a context where the greatest concern on migration emerging from surveys is the sensation of being “invaded”, any such proposal is bound to be politically controversial. As reported last week one of the crude reactions of a senior cabinet minister to Dalli’s proposal was that of asking whether “we want an African mayor in Marsa.”

While the Maltese government celebrates cosmopolitanism especially as a motor of economic growth, it remains unclear whether the country is heading to a model of integration where third country nationals can aspire to become part of the Maltese social fabric or one where they are regarded as permanent guests as happens in countries with a large turnover of transient labour like Dubai.

Bold steps like the government’s recent decision to start issuing residence permits to long-term immigrants who are not eligible for international protection but cannot be returned to their country of origin signal a move towards greater inclusion. But granting political rights to long-term residents born outside the EU still seems a step too far in the present political context.

Who can vote, who can’t?

As things stand, an Italian or a German currently living in Malta can automatically vote and stand as a candidate in local elections. Since the majority of foreigners living in Malta hail from the EU it is already possible that an Italian could get elected as a mayor of Marsa or any other Maltese locality. It has also been reported that the Italian 5 Star Movement is considering fielding a candidate for MEP elections in Malta due to the concentration of Italians in Malta.  In contrast people hailing from the USA, Syria or the Philippines (or any non-EU country) who have lived in Malta for more than 10 years cannot vote in any election held in Malta.

This is because while EU treaties ensure that nationals of EU Member States residing in another Member State already have a right to vote and stand for local and European elections in their country of residence, no such rules govern the rights of non-EU citizens even if they become an integral part of the community.

At present the only way through which third country nationals can acquire the right to vote in Malta is by becoming Maltese citizens.
This can be achieved through naturalisation, a process where the final decision is at the discretion of the minister responsible for citizenship. The European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) citizenship observatory had described this process as overshadowed by the “singular non-reviewable discretion” which the Minister for Home Affairs enjoys in decisions on each case. Voting rights can also come as a result of acquiring citizenship through the Individual Investor Programme. But not all those who acquire citizenship in the way are eligible to vote because to do so they would also have to be included in the electoral register.

In this context in Malta a refugee who has lived here for decades may still be excluded from any political participation unless he or she are granted citizenship following a lengthy and arbitrary naturalisation process. Long-term residents from non-EU countries who have contributed to the local economy by paying tax, national insurance and through investments in businesses are also excluded from the political life of the nation.

For example, a foreigner who has opened a shop or restaurant in a Maltese locality will have no say in the election of local councils which take decisions on matters like waste collection and infrastructural upgrades which impact on his or her daily life.

The situation in the EU

There is no legislation at EU level that regulates the electoral rights of Third Country Nationals.

Malta is currently one of 13 EU Member States that exclude third-country nationals from voting in local elections. These countries include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Poland and Romania. This suggests that Malta is not alone in its uneasiness to including non EU nationals in local elections.

But a majority of 15 of the 28 EU Member States allow some categories of resident third-country nationals to participate in local elections.
These states are Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Four of these states do not allow third-country nationals to stand as candidates in local elections: Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia.
Six EU Member States extend voting rights to certain categories of non-nationals to elections for regional representative bodies as well: Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Conditions for Voting

Even in countries where third country nationals are eligible to vote, this right is not granted automatically. The right to vote is often restricted by a number of conditions related to duration of residence, registration and the residence status of the person involved.  
Some countries, like Portugal, only grant the right to vote to nationals of countries who grant Portuguese nationals the right to vote in their country.

The duration of residence required before a third-country national is entitled to vote varies between three years in Denmark, Estonia, Portugal, and Sweden, four years in Finland and five years in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In Ireland and the United Kingdom the general residence requirement applies for nationals and non-nationals.

Five states, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia grant voting rights only to third country nationals who have a permanent residence permit or long-term residence status, thus severely limiting the number of third-country nationals who can vote.
Belgium also requires non-citizens to file an application for registration and to sign a declaration pledging respect to the Belgian Constitution and legislation.

Some European countries have a long tradition of granting non-citizens voting rights at local level. In the UK these voting rights were established upon the establishment of the Commonwealth and in some cases predate the Second World War. In Ireland the municipal voting right was granted to non-national residents in 1963. In Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden a regional consensus on granting voting rights to non-nationals developed during the 1970s and 1980s. The Netherlands granted voting rights to non-national residents in 1985. Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia granted voting rights to non-EU residents in 2002 and therefore did so before their accession to the EU, Luxembourg in 2003 and Belgium in 2004.

A Taboo in Malta

In 2009 a couple of months before MEP elections, both major parties signalled their opposition to a report issued by the European parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs which called on EU countries to grant the vote to their resident migrant communities. Former Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil had described granting voting rights to migrants in Malta as “one of the red lines that we cannot cross” while Labour MEPs also opposed granting voting rights to migrants due to Malta’s demographic situation.

The lack of electoral rights for migrants was one of the factors which penalised Malta’s performance in the Migrant Integration Policy Index (2015) which places Malta 33rd out of 38 countries for migrant integration. The contrast with Malta’s meteoric rise in the ILGA index on LGBTI rights prompted Helena Dalli herself to note (in an article penned in 2016) that a similar rapid rise on the Migrant Integration Policy Index is “unlikely” because “migrant integration is significantly more complex” to address and needs “a sustained information campaign to raise awareness and knowledge about what integration means in practice”.

For and against

Simon Mercieca, historian and political analyst
Simon Mercieca, historian and political analyst

Muscat’s ‘open society’ contradiction

The proposal to grant citizenship to non-EU Residents living in Malta must be read in the context of the vision that Government wants for the country. In demography, the discussion focuses on two social models in opposition to each other; an ‘open society’ or a ‘closed society. It is a fact that Joseph Muscat’s government chose the open society model for Malta. At least, one gets this impression on studying Muscat’s political discourse. But it is here that the major contradiction rests.

The proposal to grant citizenship to non-EU Residents enters within the parameters of the open society model. Thus, it makes sense that this model is being promoted by a newspaper that has long embraced this agenda. And it also logical that this model is embraced by a Government that has repeatedly spoken in favour of an open society. Unfortunately, the feedback from a number of politicians confirms that Malta embraces only concepts related to open society where the issues concerned are of a sexual nature. When it comes to other issues, which are inextricably linked to immigration, the tendency is for politicians to go for models normally associated with those endorsed by a closed society. This contradiction will lead to the failure of the open society model in Malta.

To be fair with the Prime Minister Muscat, he did not close the door to this proposal. All he said is that this proposal is not in the electoral programme and therefore cannot be taken into consideration during this legislature. He made the same argument when confronted with the abortion issue.

The problem in endorsing such a proposal arises from the fact that issues concerning immigration are giving rise to protest all over Europe.
I don’t think that Europeans are against the migrants. What they are angry at is the established political elite that has endorsed models of Open Society to legitimise its political power.

Thus, it is natural for those who are against the established political elite to lambast policies that are being supported by the parties of the centre.  

In brief, issues related to a closed society are becoming the battle cry for the European Popular Parties.

Muscat wants to avoid this kind of political backlash. In this he is aided by the fact that the Opposition is divided on these issues.
Had the Opposition a clear policy, it would have been impossible for Muscat to play this type of political game and shrug off such proposals simply by stating that they are not part of his government’s electoral pledge.

Neil Falzon, director Aditus Foundation
Neil Falzon, director Aditus Foundation

A question of equality and justice

We fully support Minister Dalli’s proposals with regards to voting rights to third country residents, as they attempt to secure a more representative political scene in Malta.

We first recommended strengthening political participation of migrants and refugees several years ago, in our Malta Integration Network project.

Then, it was received with anger and ridicule. But we reiterate that there are many reasons why this should happen.
There are three main reasons why this should happen.  

No taxation without representation remains a valid governance principle. If migrants/refugees are residing regularly and contributing financially, then justice demands that they have a say – even minimal – in the way their lives are managed and regulated by the State.
Malta’s communities are no longer homogeneous white Roman Catholic, but varied in terms of religions, ethnicities, family compositions, reasons for being here, etc. Politics should reflect this variety if it wants to be truly representative, which is what democracies are all about.

Given the possibility to vote, migrants and refugees will be encouraged to play a more active part in local and national politics.

Today they are just pawns and passive actors. A more active role would allow them to be more engaged with those institutions and people that shape Malta’s future.