Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

Opinion

The immigrant democratic deficit and the rising far-right

  • 'The low levels of electoral participation and naturalisation among Europe’s growing immigrant populations have become the major disenfranchisement cause of our time' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

What EU citizens will probably remember most about May’s European elections is the success of far-right parties.

Actions countering the far-right are mostly limited to election periods. The rest of the time, policymakers and civil society are overlooking a growing democratic deficit that inflates the far right’s electoral results; immigrants themselves simply do not count in most elections.

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The low levels of electoral participation and naturalisation among Europe’s growing immigrant populations have become the major disenfranchisement cause of our time.

Voter registration and turnout are on average lower among immigrant voters, though these levels are generally related to their age, education level, duration of residence, and interest in the election issues.

The major unaddressed issue is that, unlike in traditional countries of immigration, such as Australia and Canada, most immigrants in Western Europe are not naturalised and thus not eligible to vote in national elections, most regional elections, and (for non-EU citizens) in European elections.

Fifty-one million people

People with an immigrant background make up an estimated 14 percent of the EU’s adult population aged 15-74 – that’s around 51 million people.

An estimated 32 million are first generation (born abroad to foreign-born parents) and 18 million are second generation (born in the country to a foreign-born parent). Two thirds of the first generation are not national citizens of their country of residence. The numbers are not much better even for non-EU immigrants or for residents living in the country for ten years or more.

Large numbers of young second generation adults are also not national citizens in around half of the EU member states. As a result, an estimated 16 million non-EU citizens and 11.5 million free-moving EU citizens are disenfranchised in national and most regional elections, where most immigration, employment and social policies are decided.

Among non-EU citizens, 10 million live in EU countries denying them even the right to vote in local elections (e.g. Germany, Italy, France, Greece and Austria). These ‘missing voters’ may not have swayed the balance of power among mainstream parties, but they certainly would have diminished the power of the far-right.

Far right parties are perpetuating and benefiting the most from this democratic deficit. It is no coincidence that the far-right did best in the 2014 EU elections in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, and the UK, where naturalisation rates have also plummeted over the past decade.

Vicious circle

Research finds that the electoral power of the far-right is the most important factor explaining the restrictiveness of European countries’ citizenship policies, which then has major effects on immigrants’ naturalisation rates, even for high-educated and developed-world immigrants.

This explains why successful far-right parties usually succeed at lobbying to keep the naturalisation rate low by either blocking or undoing reform. This strategy sets off a vicious cycle of democratic deficit: the more citizens that vote for far-right parties, the more restrictive becomes the citizenship policy, the fewer immigrants become citizens, the greater is the electoral power of the far right, and the cycle continues.

To remedy this, active citizenship should be at the core of integration policies at national, local and European level. Countries without a major far-right party, such as Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, can focus on maintaining or increasing their naturalisation and electoral participation rates.

Countries with a major far-right party can still do much in practice to support immigrants and facilitate naturalisation and political participation. Positive examples include campaigns led by NGOs and municipalities in Italy and France, advocacy by immigrant youth in Italy and Greece, and specialised services in countries such as Belgium.

All of these efforts to promote active citizenship will further build consensus for electoral enfranchisement and citizenship reform based on what all citizens have in common. In all European countries, the general population also need to be informed about the effects of this democratic deficit and the benefits of active citizenship for immigrants and for wider society.

An emerging scientific literature suggests that naturalisation and electoral participation work as tools to promote socio-economic integration, fight discrimination and counter the far right.

So far, few national and local policymakers or civil society in Europe are promoting naturalisation and electoral participation among immigrants. The Migration Policy Group, inspired by good practices in the US and Europe, has just developed a model for citizenship campaigns to inform and encourage immigrants to vote and to naturalise.

In fact, this model is already being implemented in Brussels, where readers can learn how to become a Belgian citizen at an all-day forum on 25 November.

MPG and its partners believe that these campaigns will create the missing constituency on active citizenship in cities and countries across Europe. Full citizenship is within reach.

Thomas Huddleston is Programme Director on Migration and Integration at the Brussels-based Migration Policy Group. This project was supported in part by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Open Society Institute for Europe of the Open Society Foundations.

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