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. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Former French president Hollande says Macron ascendency ‘is over’

French President Emmanuel Macron's ascendancy is "over", former head of state Francois Hollande told AFP Saturday, after his former protege called a snap election likely to hand massive gains to the far right.

Former French president Hollande says Macron ascendency 'is over'

“I have no scores to settle at all. That’s all in the past,” Hollande said on the campaign trail in his native Correze department in central France, where he is standing to be an MP.

Suffering at the time from abysmal poll ratings, Socialist Hollande did not himself stand for a second term at the 2017 election.

Running as a pro-business centrist, his former economy minister Macron pulled off a surprise win that shattered traditional governing parties on the left and the right.

Now just two years into the younger man’s second term, “Macronism is over, if indeed it ever existed. But it’s over, I say it with no special hostility,” Hollande said.

“I don’t mean that his presidential term is coming to an end, that’s something different. But what he may have represented for a time is over,” he added.

Re-elected in 2022 for a second five-year term, Macron lost his absolute majority in parliament in legislative polls the same year.

His party has limped on in minority government, passing hard-fought and controversial reforms including raising the pension age and toughening immigration law.

But a heavy defeat at June 9’s European Parliament election prompted Macron to dissolve parliament in hopes of breaking the deadlock.

READ ALSO: French left vows new taxes as snap election draws near

A new chamber will be elected on June 30 and July 7 with the far-right National Rally (RN) looking set to win the most seats.

‘Heavy cost’

France’s two-round electoral system makes predicting outcomes tricky, but it is highly unlikely that Macron’s gamble will pay off by winning a new majority.

Instead, he could find himself presiding over a government run by an ideological opponent.

Macron’s rule has “had a heavy political cost,” Hollande said.

“The parties were heavily damaged and public morale was too. The far right has never been so strong.”

Hollande’s Socialist party has formed an electoral alliance with other left parties including Greens, Communists and hard-left France Unbowed (LFI).

Their New Popular Front (NFP) is currently running second to the RN in the polls, both well ahead of Macron’s Renaissance outfit.

“It’s time for a political realignment,” Hollande said.

READ ALSO: OPINION: France has taken leave of its senses, and it’s no laughing matter

“I didn’t plan to stand for any election in my position, something very serious had to happen” in the shape of the RN’s more than 31 percent in the European election, he added.

Some Socialist voters have struggled with the idea of backing an alliance with LFI and its fiery leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, with some party figures accused of anti-Semitism and a history of Eurosceptic statements.

“I’m in the framework of an alliance because it has to be done, but there’s no kind of confusion” between his positions and Melenchon’s, Hollande said.

If elected, “I’ll be an MP who will call for responsibility whatever happens… vigilant and committed to finding solutions,” he added.