IMMIGRANT VOTING RIGHTS IN BELGIUM
The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
Many concerns about non-citizen voting have revolved around the prospect of immigrants maintaining loyalty to different countries and codes of citizenship even while exercising political power in Belgium. In fact, non-citizens registering to vote must sign a declaration of respect for the Belgian laws and constitution, a procedure that was added explicitly as “as a safeguard against Islamic fundamentalism.”
Belgium recently extended the right to vote in local elections to immigrants from outside the European Union with at least five years of legal residence in the country. The act providing for non-citizen voting was adopted by the Belgian Parliament as the Law of 19 March 2004, a modification to the Communal Elections Act of 4 August 1932, and goes into effect in 2006.
History of Immigrant Voting Rights in Belgium
Although non-citizens only recently gained the right to vote in Belgium, proposals to extend electoral rights to the country’s sizable immigrant population have been introduced periodically throughout the past three decades. In fact, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, “[i]mmigrant voting rights were first discussed in Belgium in the late 1970s, when it became clear that the hundreds of thousands of Muslim guest workers from Turkey and Northern Africa, who had moved to Europe in the boom years of the ’60s, would never go back.”
The neighboring Netherlands, with a similar guest worker population, granted foreigners the right to vote in local elections by 1986. In Belgium, however, the issue proved to be much more divisive, especially insofar as it played into ethnic tensions that existed even before the rise in immigration. In particular, Flemish politicians resisted the enfranchisement of immigrants, arguing that the introduction of a new group of voters would shatter the delicate balance of power between Dutch and French-speaking communities and possibly create a disproportionate benefit for Francophone political parties. Walloon politicians, apparently in agreement about the potential political consequences of immigrant enfranchisement, have just as consistently supported the extension of voting rights.
Despite lack of consensus within Belgium over the future of immigrant voting, developments outside the country kept the issue on the political radar. The immigrant voting rights scholar David Earnest suggests that one reason for the resurgence of the Belgian enfranchisement movement “may be the role of the European Union: EU states agree under the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) to enfranchise EU nationals who reside within the Union but outside their country of citizenship. Because it had already enabled EU nationals to vote in local elections, the enfranchisement of non-EU resident aliens was a relatively modest extension of the franchise. Another reason may be the examples set by other nearby states that had enfranchised non-citizens. Proponents of enfranchisement in Belgium cited the success of similar measures in the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Finland.” In fact, by 2002, Belgium was “one of only seven countries in the European Union where non-EU immigrants still [did] not have voting rights.
The most recent proposal to enfranchise immigrants was introduced by Socialist and Green Party politicians. In their arguments, they noted that “giving all resident taxpayers the right to vote in local elections is just common sense.” According to Socialist Senator Louis Tobbback, legal immigrants “’living and participating in community life, paying taxes and contributions to social security . . . not only have the same rights, but the same duties.’” Likewise, Socialist Senator Fatma Pehlivan emphasized that allowing immigrants to vote is crucial to their eventual integration in the national community, pointing out that “'[t]o them, this is a positive signal that they are part of society, that their vote counts.’”
Although Socialist and Green politicians spearheaded the latest movement for immigrant voting rights, they were quickly joined by all of the Walloon parties except the extreme-right National Front. Flemish politicians were more reticent, particularly given the relative lack of popular support for the measure. In fact, in the months leading up to the Senate vote in February, 2004, the liberal VLD (Flemish Liberals and Democrats) as well as the far-right Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) argued against enfranchising immigrants. Finally, the only Dutch-speaking party to come out in favor of immigrant voting was the socialist SP.A (Social Progressive Alternative). However, while the structure of the Belgian Parliament requires both Walloon and Flemish support for a proposal to become law, the strength of the SP.A tipped the balance in favor of the Walloon-backed immigrant voting act. On March 19, 2004, at last, the Belgian Parliament signed the immigrant voting bill into law.
Eligible Voters and Practical Consequences of Immigrant Voting Rights
As of February 2002, the number of non-EU foreigners who had been legal residents of Belgium for at least five years was 123,542, out of Belgium’s total population of 10.3 million inhabitants. Of these, the largest groups are Moroccans and Turks, counted in a later poll at 81,762 and 41,336 respectively. There are believed to be another 100,000 unauthorized foreigners.
Under the Law of 19 March 2004, these long-term residents of Belgium will be allowed to register to vote in local elections. This law will become effective in 2006, when the next municipal elections are held.
Several barriers to widespread exercise of voting rights remain in place. While Belgium imposes mandatory voting on citizens, who are automatically registered in the electoral polls, resident foreigners will have to register themselves. Moreover, at the time of registration, non-citizen voters will be required to sign a declaration swearing that they understand Belgian law and will uphold the constitution. Finally, though citizens of European Union countries who are resident in Belgium may both vote in municipal elections and stand for office, non-citizens will not be allowed to run for office under the new Law.
The practical impact of the Law of 19 March 2004 is not yet clear, given that it will become applicable for the first time in the local elections of 2006. However, given the relatively small number of potential voters involved, however, it seems unlikely that this new law will cause large shifts in political power.
Many concerns about non-citizen voting revolved around the prospect of immigrants maintaining loyalty to different countries and codes of citizenship even while exercising political power in Belgium. In fact, the registration requirement of signing a declaration of respect for the Belgian laws and constitution was added explicitly as “as a safeguard against Islamic fundamentalism.” Despite these concerns, however, it seems that a unified attack on Belgian secularism is quite unlikely, given that “[i]n countries where noncitizen immigrants are already allowed to vote locally, fears of Islamic fundamentalist parties taking over city councils have so far proven unfounded.”
Non-Citizen Voting and the Question of Naturalization
When the question of non-citizen voting rights first arose in Belgium, the national context was one of large numbers of immigrants and powerful barriers to naturalization. Until the mid-1980s, in fact, Belgium made essentially no effort to assimilate immigrants, assuming that most such residents were temporary and would eventually return to their home countries. Naturalization procedures were complex and arbitrary, and very few immigrants became Belgian citizens.
By 1984, when it had become clear that legal immigrants were unlikely to abandon the country, the government enacted a new Nationality Code establishing the principle of jus soli (i.e., children born on Belgian soil of foreign parents who themselves were born in Belgium automatically became Belgian citizens) and simplifying the process for naturalization. Despite this simplification, the naturalization process still required applicants to demonstrate an arbitrarily-measured “desire to integrate.”
Beginning in 1985, the Act of 1984 was gradually revised to “allow any foreigner legally residing in Belgium to become Belgian by making a simple declaration, without having to make any statement affirming his or her ‘desire to integrate’.” The impact of these changes has been enormous. For instance, between 1986 and 1991, only 35,756 non-European Union foreigners became naturalized Belgians. Between 1992 and 1997, by comparison, 123,738 residents of non-EU origin were naturalized. Most recently, the Fast Belgian Law of 1 March 2000 came into effect, allowing foreign nationals legally resident in Belgium for three years and refugees resident for two years to submit an application for naturalization. Belgian naturalization is now quick and free of charge, and many immigrants have taken advantage of these streamlined procedures.
Given the relative ease of acquiring Belgian citizenship, many opposed to non-citizen voting have questioned why potential immigrant voters do not simply become naturalized Belgians. It is true that naturalization in Belgium has never been easier than it is today, but this situation may be irrelevant to the relatively few people who are eligible to become immigrant voters. Many of the remaining legal residents who have not chosen to become citizens are first-generation immigrants from rural Morocco and Turkey and, “[s]ince applying for Belgian citizenship involves producing birth certificates that in many cases simply do not exist, thousands never bothered.”
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David C. Earnest, “Political Incorporation and Historical Institutionalism: A Comparison of the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium,” 46th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Honolulu, Hawaii (2005).
“France, Benelux.” Migration News, April 2005.
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Tom Vandyck, “In Europe, A Voting Rights Debate,” Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 2004.
The Netherlands’ decision to allow resident aliens to vote in local elections was a gradual process. This enfranchisement began in Rotterdam (1979), continued in Amsterdam (1981), and was finally extended to the entire country by the Dutch Parliament in 1984. Because changes in national law were necessary before implementing the 1984 decision, aliens outside Rotterdam and Amsterdam did not vote in local elections until 1986. (David C. Earnest, “Political Incorporation and Historical Institutionalism: A Comparison of the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium,” 46th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, 2005, p. 15.)
The Belgian population consists of 2 large language groups: Dutch speaking Belgians or Flemings (north Belgians, about 60% of the population) and French speaking Belgians or Walloons (south Belgians, about 40% of the population). German speaking Belgians form a sizable minority (East Belgians, less than 1% of the population). (CIA World Factbook).
Earnest, p. 25.
Earnest, p. 26.
Shirin Wheeler, “Belgium Mulls Vote for Non-EU Residents,” BBC News, March 28, 2002.
Polls before the parliamentary vote on immigrant voting “found some 70 percent of Belgians are against granting immigrants the vote.” In view of this, some moderate Flemish politicians feared that any support of the measure would only increase the popularity of the already powerful far-right Vlaams Blok. (Khaled Diab, “Migrating from the Margins,” Expatica Belgian News in English, November 21, 2003).
“France, Benelux,” Migration News 12.2 (April, 2005). http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/.
Once registered, immigrant voters will be held to the same mandatory voting system as Belgian citizens. (Harald Waldrauch, “Electoral Rights for Foreign Nationals: A Comparative Overview,” ESF/LESC-SCSS Exploratory Workshop: Citizens, non-citizens and voting rights in Europe, 2005, p. 12)
Waldrauch, p. 12.
Dirk Jacobs, Marco Martiniello, and Andrea Rea, “Changing patterns of political participation of immigrants in the Brussels Capital Region: The October 2000 Elections,” 6th Annual Metropolis Conference, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (2001).
Marco Martiniello and Andrea Rea, “Belgium’s Immigration Policy Brings Renewal and Challenges,” Migration Information (October 2003). http://www.migrationinformation.org/
“The Belgian Policy Report on Migration and Asylum: With a Special Focus on Immigration and Integration (reference period: 01/01/2003 – 31/07/2004),” The Belgian Contact Point of the European Migration Network, undated.