Joint conference between the Congress and the City of Strasbourg, “Residence-based participation: a new reality of modern democracy”, Strasbourg, 27 November 2013


Speech by Henrik Hammar, (Sweden, EPP-CCE) Rapporteur on migrant entrepreneurship at local level of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am particularly pleased to take part in this conference and workshop on residence-based participation. First of all, because as Congress rapporteur on integration of migrants through entrepreneurship, I fully share the conviction that we need to make full and good use of the benefits of today’s diversity in Europe and to empower our local residents by giving them better access to decision-making and power-sharing.

The right to vote and to stand as a candidate in local elections is one major step in this direction, a step towards full political participation. Not only does it represent a measure against exclusion of foreigners from democratic processes – it also turns foreign residents into voters, which makes politicians more receptive and sensitive to the foreigners’ needs.

The second reason why I am pleased to be here is because I am Chair of a local council in Sweden, a country which ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the participation of foreigners in public life at local level in 1993. All foreign residents have the right to vote in local elections in my country, and I see this conference as an opportunity for sharing my experiences, but also for listening and learning from your experiences.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Equal participation is one of the basic premises of democracy, and the realities of the European demographic situation today compel us to accept that this equality in participation cannot be limited only to citizens that are nationals of the host country. Growing diversity of European communities compels us to accept the fact that migrants and foreign residents have become an integral part of the social fabric of our municipalities and regions. They are contributing to the development of our communities economically, socially and culturally, but far too often they do not have a political voice and are excluded from political decision making.

This is happening against the background of a general “democratic disconnect” between citizens and power. Indeed, if most European citizens today do not trust their politicians, see corruption at all levels of governance as a major challenge to democracy, and feel disempowered and excluded from decision-making – then we do have indeed a systemic crisis. This crisis must be addressed urgently if we are to advance into the future with a stronger, not weaker, democracy.

This means that we – public authorities – need to find new ways of engaging citizens and providing for their better and more meaningful participation in democratic decision-making, not limited to elections alone. We need a new model of continued citizen participation and feedback on public action, combining elements of direct democracy with the traditional system of representative democracy. Such participatory democracy must necessarily involve migrants, foreign residents and minority groups, and must begin with their integration, in particular at local and regional levels. For us, integration and participation do indeed go hand in hand.

The Congress has been addressing these issues as a priority for many years. Over the past decade alone, we have adopted a wide range of proposals recommending policy action to set up councils of foreign residents, develop municipal intercultural policies, foster intercultural dialogue and manage inter-faith and intercultural tensions, diversify employment in public services, and adapt housing policies to address migrants’ needs – to name but a few. Just last month, the Congress adopted new recommendations, for promoting migrant entrepreneurship in European municipalities and for improving migrants’ access to regional labour markets.

We are convinced, for example, that everyday participation of foreigners will be a dead letter without their equal access to social rights and public services, which must include access to employment, education, housing and health care.

Such action, in turn, should be accompanied by measures to promote active citizenship in local communities – for example, through education on national laws and local regulations, or education for democratic citizenship and human rights, among others. At the same time, work among the local population to fight prejudice against migrants – for example, by raising awareness of their cultures and contribution to the local community – helps to overcome discrimination and reluctance to engage them in community life. This, too, leads to their better participation at local level.

A few words about practices in my native country of Sweden.

First, let me turn back to the European Convention on the participation of foreigners in public life at local level. For 20 years Congress reports have pointed to the importance of member states signing and ratifying this convention. Up to now only a few countries have made this effort. This means that EU members have the right to vote in local and regional elections but, in many of the member states of the Council of Europe, third-country representatives do not have these possibilities, making a strict division of who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to societal matters. As a rapporteur on the issue I would like to urge, once more, local and regional authorities to try influencing their respective government to sign the Convention.

Then, let me share with you some experiences from the view of a Swedish local elected representative. Sweden is one of the countries in Europe who has welcomed very many refugees and immigrants from different part of the world. In fact, every 5th person living in Sweden has origins outside the country – many of them EU citizens but very many coming from the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia like Afghanistan and from former Yugoslavia i.e. Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia. In fact, Södertälje, a small town south of Stockholm, did welcome more Irakii refugees than the whole of the United States! They settle both in the north and the south of Sweden, although many settle together with their countrymen and many in the three metropolitan areas of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. The local authorities meet their demands and their aspirations at local level. Of course, having a say in the daily life of politics of the local authorities helps to integrate in the Swedish society.

Since 1976 all foreigners who have lived in Sweden for three years may vote in local and regional elections. If you are an EU citizen you may vote from the day you register as a resident. As much as 60 % of all foreigners did vote in local and regional elections at this first occasion.

Since then the percentage has gone done, which is something that has been the challenge for many local authorities to meet with. Let me mention some municipalities. Botkyrka, south of Stockholm, started several projects on “democracy ombudsmen”, a kind of informative positions to which were recruited representatives from non-governmental organisations, from associations and networks of foreigners and young persons with an interest in society. The ombudsmen met with people in shopping centres, in public places, in libraries, but also by knocking doors in their neighbourhood. They met with 10.000 foreigners to prepare for the elections. They did not campaign for a specific political party, but for the moral duty to use your right to vote and thus take part in societal life influencing your own future. The effects of those projects were obvious: in the parts of Botkyrka were the ombudsmen had been active the percentage of foreign men and women voting on election day was substantially higher than in other parts of the city. In Stockholm and Malmö similar ombudsmen worked to a large degree directly with local organisations and by arranging public discussions etc.

Another example. In Hylie, part of the city of Malmö with many foreign residents, the afghani academic society took the initiative to gather 150 women on Women’s Day in order to learn about women’s’ rights and about the right to vote in local and regional elections in Sweden. The Albanian society gathered 230 members to celebrate and to learn about democracy in Sweden. Both of those events are examples of a co-operation between the local authority and the non-governmental organisations, the foreigners’ own networks.

A third example. In Gothenburg, the second biggest city in Sweden, there is an association of about 300 Somalia natives. This organisation invited its members to three different meetings. At the first meeting a professor on law, born in Mogadishu, lectured on how democracy is built in Sweden, how municipalities and regions are governed and how elections are being organised. The second meeting was devoted to democracy in an international context and also to the relations between Islam and the voting in democratic elections. During the third meeting an imam took part, informing about the congruency between Islam and representative democracy and also pointing out the right of women to vote, taking the laws of the new country into respect.

The national authorities make efforts to support the local initiatives. The government office for carrying through elections makes available impartial and informative leaflets in all languages needed. The public education system supports foreigners to learn the Swedish language and makes information on how to vote available to the participants of language courses. Information is also available on the local self-government and on the vast areas of responsibilities lying with Swedish municipalities and regions.

Thus, some very practical exemples show that endorsing the right to vote does make a difference. And more foreigners taking part in municipal life also does make a difference, of that I’m sure! Even though the percentage of foreigners voting in local and regional elections has gone down, and even if the voting also on national level shows a difference between individuals born in Sweden (86 %) and born in other countries (73 %), the record of voting is in an international comparison quite high. We do not have any obligation to vote, but the option is thought of as an important sign of a living democracy.

The option of this Conference is to enhance a residence-based right to vote at local and regional level. The European Convention on the participation of foreigners in political life at local level is still the basis. The convention opens two kinds of possibilities: the right to vote at local and regional level and the right to be heard during the mandatory period as part of advisory bodies or as part of other dialogues. The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, of which I am a part, does work intensively with both those options and they are of course complementary. I truly believe that when taking into serious consideration the potential of the foreigners living in our home countries we do not only open human options to them but also to ourselves. One aspect of this was highlighted in the report on entrepreneurship that I presented earlier this autumn.

On this topic – the joint interest making everybody living in our municipalities part of our common societal life – I hope to hear a lot of voices during this conference. I will listen carefully and I will take all the experiences and voices home to my own town of Örkelljunga in the south of Sweden.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening.