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ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

Non-EU nationals living in Europe don't have many voting rights but some countries do allow them to cast a ballot in local elections. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?
Where in Europe can foreigners cast a ballot in local elections? (Photo by LAURA BOUSHNAK / AFP)

In December 2021 the New York City Council passed a law granting local voting rights to non-USA citizens with permanent residence (the “green card”) or a valid work authorisation, starting from 2023. 

Whether the decision will become reality is still in question, as the law is being challenged in the Supreme Court. But for the time being, New York joins Chicago, San Francisco and some other US municipalities allowing foreign nationals to vote. 

As this happens in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what is the situation in Europe? The answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The general principle is that voting rights are based on citizenship and each country makes its own rules. When electoral rights are granted to non-nationals, these are usually limited to local elections and do not extend to national ones. So neither EU nationals or non-EU citizens are able to vote for example in French presidential elections or German parliamentary elections, unless of course they have taken citizenship in those countries.

Common arrangements are established at the European Union level for EU citizens who move to other member states. They can vote in municipal elections in the country where they live and can choose to vote in the host country or at home for the election of the European Parliament.

In addition, some EU countries have signed other regional or bilateral agreements that guarantee voting rights to non-nationals. 

So where can non-EU citizens vote in the European Union? This is where things stand in the EU and in particular in the nine European countries covered by The Local.

The Nordics

In addition to EU citizens, Denmark allows all non-nationals to vote in local elections as long as they have at least four years of residence. 

Sweden, Finland and Norway (which is not part of the EU) have similar rules, but in Sweden and Norway the residency requirement is three years and in Finland it is two years on the 51st day before the election.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland also mutually guarantee the right to vote for municipal and regional councils as part of the Nordic Passport Union. 

Spain’s bilateral agreements

Another country that grants municipal voting rights to some citizens beyond the EU is Spain. Madrid has signed bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, the UK, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea and Trinidad y Tobago. The residency requirement is set in each agreement.

Other EU countries that grant local voting rights to non-EU citizens are Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia. Again, each country has its own residency requirements. 

Portugal has agreements on voting rights in local elections with Brazil, Cape Verde, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, as well as with the UK for citizens who were living in the country before Brexit. Some Brazilian residents have full voting rights in Portugal.

Ongoing debates

Austria, France, Germany and Italy do not allow non-EU citizens to take part in local elections, although the issue has been debated in recent years. This would require constitutional changes, however. 

In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, foreign nationals do not have the right to vote at federal level but they can participate in some cantonal and communal elections. Information on the political rights of non-Swiss citizens is available from this map on the Swiss Confederation website.

A special situation concerns UK citizens in the EU, who have lost the automatic right to vote in municipal elections when the country left the bloc. They can still vote, however, where this is allowed to non-EU citizens and the British government has negotiated bilateral agreements on local voting rights with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. 

But do foreigners bother voting? 

Having the right to vote, however, does not necessarily mean exercising it. The European Commission has found that electoral participation of EU citizens living in other EU countries is below average. 

Among the difficulties there are a lack of awareness about voting rights, the sometimes burdensome registration requirements, the lack of familiarity with the voting system or with local politics, as well as language problems.

In November the Commission proposed changes to current rules asking member states to better inform EU citizens about their rights and make information available in at least one other language. 

The ECIT Foundation, a group working on EU citizenship in Brussels, said the Commission could be more ambitious. The group requested in particular the creation of “dedicated helpdesk” for EU citizens moving across borders to “proactively engage with electoral rights before, during and after elections to maintain a constant engagement of electoral participation.”

ECIT Founder Tony Venables noted that, in some countries, the extension of voting rights to EU nationals has led to the inclusion of non-EU citizens too and better information about elections is likely to benefit also non-EU citizens. 

The ECIT Foundation is among the organisations behind the European citizens initiative “Voters without borders” which is calling on the EU to grant full political rights to EU citizens moving around the bloc. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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BREXIT

REVEALED: More than 2,800 Brits ordered to leave European countries since Brexit

Almost two years after the UK officially left the European Union, one of the consequences of ending free movement has become clear for the hundreds of Britons who have been ordered to leave countries across Europe.

REVEALED: More than 2,800 Brits ordered to leave European countries since Brexit

Data published recently by the EU statistical office, Eurostat, reveals that about 2,250 UK citizens were ordered to leave EU countries between 2020 and September 2022. If we add the numbers for the countries of the European Free Trade Association (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland), where EU free movement rules also apply, the total increases to 2,830.

The UK officially left the EU at midnight on 31st January 2020, but free movement with the EU continued until 31st December 2020, when the post-Brexit transition period ended. This period coincided with lockdowns and travel restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Data on non-EU nationals ordered to leave EU member states includes people found to be illegally present in member states who are subject to an administrative or judicial decision imposing them to depart. In other words those who fail to meet residency or visa requirements as well as those ordered to leave after committing crimes.

While the data doesn’t include the exact reasons on why these Britons were ordered to leave – so we don’t know the exact figure on how many orders were directly linked to the results of Brexit and the ending freedom of movement –  Citizen’s Rights campaigners say the numbers reflect what has been happening in certain countries since Brexit.

It is also not possible to compare the figure to pre-Brexit figure for the number of Britons deported because Britons were not considered third-country nationals prior to Brexit so the data is not available.

In total, according to Eurostat, more than a million non-EU citizens were ordered to leave the EU between January 2020 and September 2022. UK citizens represent a small proportion, but the situation varies between countries, depending on national migration policies, administrative and judicial procedures and data reporting.

This is what emerges from the Eurostat data for the countries covered by The Local.

Sweden the toughest

While France was responsible for the highest proportion of leave orders to non-EU citizens, it is Sweden and the Netherlands that have taken the toughest approach to Brits.

Sweden is responsible for 1,050 of the 2,250 British nationals ordered to leave EU countries between the first quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2022.

In the run up to the Brexit deadline for residency The Local carried a warning by a leading group for Brits in Sweden that authorities in the country were not doing enough to reach UK citizens to make them aware of the date.

READ ALSO: Post-Brexit residence status: Sweden rejects more Brits than any other EU country

Recently The Local covered the story of Stockholm chef Stuart Philpott, who only learned that he should have applied for post-Brexit residence shortly before he was frogmarched onto a return flight by Swedish border police.

After Sweden the Netherlands followed with 615 orders for Britons to leave. Norway and Switzerland, which are not part of the EU and have separate Brexit agreements with the UK, issued 455 and 125 departure orders respectively, according to Eurostat data.

Malta ordered 115 UK citizens to leave, France 95, Belgium 65, Denmark 40, Germany 25 and Austria 10.

When it comes to Denmark The Local revealed that hundreds of Brits who had moved to the country shortly before Brexit were not sent reminder letters that they needed to apply for a new residency status. Some of those Britons now face deportation, despite having jobs and family in Denmark.

Spain, which hosts the biggest UK community in the EU, has not ordered any Briton to leave the country since Brexit, and nor did Italy – at least according to the Eurostat data.

Jane Golding, co-founder of the British in Europe citizens’ rights group, said the data about Sweden was “not surprising”. “We do know that, statistically, the percentage of refusals of status in Sweden is far higher than in equivalent countries and the numbers ordered to leave correspond fairly closely to refusals of status under the withdrawal agreement,” she said.

Michaela Benson, Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University and expert on migration, citizenship and identity, added: “It is a reminder that since Brexit, British citizens no longer enjoy freedom of movement.

“Anyone newly arriving or who did not meet the deadlines for applying for status under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, is now considered as a third country national and subject to domestic immigration controls in the EU-26 member states [the 27 EU countries minus Ireland].”

Similar to other nationalities, the majority of leave orders concerned men (1,560).  Some 195 also affected young people below the age of 18, with Sweden topping the list (135), followed by the Netherlands (20) and Germany (5).

Debbie Williams of the group Brexpats Hear our Voice said countries need to provide more detailed data to explain the orders to leave.

“I’d like to see more transparency on these issues because how do we know if the withdrawal agreement is failing people if we don’t know the detail,” she said.

Illegally present in EU

When it comes to immigration law enforcement, Eurostat collects statistical information from individual countries not only about orders to leave, but also about people refused entry at the EU external borders, people found to be illegally present in a member state territory and people returned, or deported, following a leave order.

There might be differences however between the number of persons found to be illegally present in a country and those ordered to leave because those affected might have left the territory voluntarily or their situation might have been regularised.

Third-country nationals are considered illegally present in an EU member state under national immigration law if they have entered unlawfully – for instance avoiding immigration controls or using a fraudulent document – if they have overstayed their permission to remain – for example stayed for longer than 90 days without a visa or residency permit – or they have undertaken unauthorised employment.

Of the 681,200 non-EU citizens found to be illegally present in the EU in 2021, only 590 (less than 1 per cent) were British, according to the available data. The real figure for the number of Britons found illegally present in EU countries since Brexit may be higher but more accurate data which includes figures for 2022 is not yet available.

Some 110 cases were due to overstays, 90 to illegal entry and 210 for “other reasons”.

Switzerland reported 75 overstays and 50 illegal entries.

Malta reported 70 Britons, all for overstays. 

Germany found 140 Brits to be illegally present in the country’s territory in 2021; the Netherlands 55; France 50; Austria, Sweden and Norway 30; Italy 25; Denmark 5; Spain none. 

Deportations

In all some 840 UK citizens were returned in the year 2021 and 1,340 overall since Brexit including up to September 2022, the most recent data reveals. The countries responsible for the most deportations were Sweden (745), Malta (115), Finland (110), the Netherlands (75) and, outside the EU, Norway (375). 
 
Again Eurostat’s data for deportations doesn’t explain the reasons behind the decisions so we don’t know how many are directly linked linked to the consequences of Brexit. There is also no data for the numbers of deportations of Britons prior to Brexit to compare with.
  
In comparison, some 82,700 non-EU citizens were returned to another country in 2021, with Ukrainians and Albanians representing the largest share. This was before the start of the war in Ukraine.
 

For more info on these statistics READ MORE.

  • The Local originally reported that 195 UK citizens were deported from EU countries in 2021 after receiving an order to leave but we have revised the figure up because new more accurate quarterly data has since emerged that reveals the number for 2021 is much higher because it includes data from countries like Sweden. New data also covers up until September 2022.
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