31st Mar 2023

Expat voting to be made easier in European elections

The European Commission is working to make the 2009 European Parliament elections more "European," proposing measures to make it easier for citizens to vote and stand as candidates in a member state other than their own.

Europeans living in another member state are gradually showing more interest in electing their MEPs, going up from 5.9 percent in 1994 to 9 percent in 1999 and 11.94 percent in 2004, according to a commission report released last week.

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The figures come despite the trend of ever-lower general participation in European elections, which reached a new low of 45.6 percent in 2004.

In order to boost participation among expats further, Brussels has now proposed getting rid of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for voters, such as cumbersome checks before the elections to see whether expats will not vote "double" in both their state of origin and their state of residence.

"I don't think the issue is double voting here. The real problem is to get people out to vote," said one commission official.

Under Brussels' proposals, expected to be endorsed by member states before the 2009 European elections, it should be enough that expats merely sign a formal declaration that they will only vote in one country.

Checks would be conducted only after the poll to detect possible "double voting" fraud in areas with many EU foreigners, such as coastal regions in Spain where many northern Europeans have retired.

Commission officials said they do not really know how big this fraud really is at present.

Expat MEPs

Under Brussels' plans it will also be made easier for citizens to stand as candidate MEPs in a "foreign" EU country - a phenomenon which is currently very limited.

In 2004, only 57 candidates campaigned to get elected as an MEP in a member state other than their own, with three of them actually making it into the EU assembly.

Among them is Finnish centre-right deputy Ari Vatanen, a former rally driver who was personally encouraged to run as an MEP in France by his friend and president Jacques Chirac.

The commission believes that here too red tape is part of the problem and is proposing to scrap the currently required certificate for candidates from their home government saying they have not been disqualified from standing - for example because of a criminal record.

In 2009, candidates should merely have to sign a statement in this regard, to be checked by member states' authorities among themselves.

A more serious hurdle found by Brussels is the prohibition, in seven member states, for non-nationals to join or found political parties - effectively hindering expats to stand as candidate MEPs.

Commission officials are currently investigating whether Estonia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Malta and Slovenia are in breach of EU law, which could eventually lead to legal action.

The EU executive's initiative to remove bureaucratic hurdles to cross-border candidatures follows more far-reaching ideas by French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently proposed to actively set up common lists of candidates of different nationalities, based on common political programs.

Early publication of results

Meanwhile, the commission report "draws attention" to the fact that some member states in the 2004 elections published their results before the closing of the polls in other member states - which is illegal under the 1976 European Elections Act.

The 2004 poll saw a spat over this issue between the commission and the Netherlands, with Brussels angry at The Hague for publishing its results already on 10 June - three days before the last vote had been cast in countries like Italy.

The commission said the early release of results in one member state would influence the vote in member states where polling is still going on - but the Dutch ignored this argument saying they consider transparency in election results a national tradition.

Brussels now looks unwilling to clamp down on the practice before the 2009 elections, with one commission official even welcoming the release of early results as making the elections "more political."

Officials also noted that the European Elections Act is a unique piece of EU legislation which can only be amended at the initiative of the European Parliament - not, as usual, by the commission.

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