35th Session of the Congress – Strasbourg, 6-8 November 2018

Presentation by Jos WIENEN (Netherlands, EPP/CCE)

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Voting rights at local level as an element of successful long-term integration of migrants and IDPs in Europe’s municipalities and regions

Strasbourg, France, 06 November 2018

Dear colleagues,

It is my pleasure to present to you today a draft report which is – given the demographic change in Europe - of particular relevance for the local level. I am talking about voting rights of people who are residing in municipalities which are not their native communities. More specifically, this is about voting rights for internally displaced persons and for migrants, seen as an element of successful long-term integration of people in our towns, cities and regions.

You may remember, this draft report has been debated and approved during the Monitoring Committee meeting held in Turkey before summer. Since then, its relevance became even stronger which only proves that our current endeavours in this regard are in many ways important – and I'll explain to you why that is the case.

In 2016, when we first considered this report, it was clear from the outset that this will not be an easy undertaking. We all know the heated debate and the arguments - may they be based on good reason or on pure populism.

Apart from the topicality of the theme, there was a concrete cause for the Congress to prepare this report which stems directly from experiences made during election observation missions: Voting rights of internally displaced persons (the acronym is “IDPs”) were an issue during our election observation mission in Ukraine in October 2015, where many Ukrainian nationals had to leave their central place of life without a short-term perspective for participation in local affairs in their new places of residence.

In total, there are currently almost 1,7 million registered IDPs in Ukraine of whom some 20.000 fled Crimea after the annexation in 2014, while the rest originates from Donetsk and Luhansk. IDPs were not allowed to cast their vote in the last local elections. The Congress found this problematic and recommended Ukraine to find a solution with sufficient time before the next local elections which are due in 2020.

Regretfully, as of today, the legal provisions of the electoral law that prevented IDPs from voting in 2015 still remain untouched. What is more, the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Ukraine affirmed that the current law provides no grounds at all for IDP voting in local elections. With the next 2020 local elections in sight, we are quickly approaching the point of no return, so to say. This means that our dialog with the Ukrainian side needs to be accelerated.

In this respect, I would like to turn to our guest speaker from IFES, Mr. Harald JEPSEN, with whom we will discuss possible cooperation in 2019, to further raise public awareness of this issue in Ukraine. All in all, I remain optimistic about possible solutions we may reach. On this note, I can say with delight that we have had fruitful cooperation with the Ukrainian Delegation to the Congress over summer with regard to their comments to the Explanatory Memorandum of our present report which I took into account, to a large extent.

And indeed, there are examples in the area of the Council of Europe that show that positive change is possible. In October 2017, during the observation of local elections in Georgia, we became again aware of this problem. Still, Georgia had taken measures to counter it. Some 200,000 internally displaced persons were included in the voters’ lists at their current places of residence, the so-called “factual address”. Those with terminated or no official IDP status were given an opportunity to register. The Congress welcomed these measures brought about through amendments of the Election Code of Georgia.

More broadly speaking, the question of voting rights for foreigners in Europe’s municipalities was discussed during the Congress election observation mission organised in Finland in April 2017. As in my own country, the Netherlands, also in Finland it’s the actual place of permanent residence in a given municipality which enfranchises an individual in local elections (irrespective of the individual’s citizenship). The difference between my country and Finland lies only in the duration of residence (Finland requires at least two years, the Netherlands five).

Altogether, we observe that political participation of foreigners is high on the agenda of many Council of Europe member states. We may like or dislike it - but at the end of the day we have to face the problem and look into possibilities of effective integration of those who are – very likely – to stay in our communities. Voting rights at the local level can be crucial for successful integration policies of municipalities and regions.

Let me come back now to the overall context of migration for political, humanitarian and socio-economic reasons which Europe is currently facing. As mayors and councillors we are all aware that an increasing number of people have settled (or have been re-settled) with varying degrees of permanence in countries, or regions, other than their country or region of origin.

Some of us are at the front line in managing this phenomenon in practical terms – and also in line with international human rights standards. We need to take up this challenge!

In the present draft report, we make the distinction between internally displaced persons, IDPs, and foreigners who reside in a country from which they do not hold citizenship. IDPs hold citizenship and therefore are supposed to be granted voting rights - as any other citizen.

 As regards foreigners, in general elections, most countries have a nationality requirement as legal basis of the right to vote for the President or the Parliament. However, as it has been established by the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters, there is a tendency to grant voting rights in local elections to long-standing foreign residents, in accordance with the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at the Local Level. Accordingly, it is recommended that the right to vote in local elections be granted after a certain period of residence.

This is exactly the point of departure for us in the Congress who are responsible for policies that are closest to the residents: No matter their status or citizenship, it is our conviction that voting rights are a natural starting point for a successful long-term integration. Voting encourages new residents to actively participate in the life of their communities; it also gives them the opportunity to influence decisions impacting their daily lives. Eventually, it helps seeing themselves as a part of the whole community.

You may have noticed that our Recommendation puts specific focus on the situation of internally displaced persons. And there is good reason to do so: In general, IDPs face very practical challenges when it comes to their voting rights, and as citizens of their country of residence they should be included in all electoral processes. Therefore, authorities at all levels are requested to facilitate the implementation of voting rights of IDPs, by lifting barriers to voters’ registration and guaranteeing targeted information and protection, to mention only two examples.

You may have also observed that, regarding the voting rights of migrants - more generally speaking, of “foreigners” - we are less outspoken in the Recommendation, compared to our position on IDPs. This does not mean that we want to avoid this question. It only reflects the current lack of international standards and shows that much more reflection and debate is needed in this respect.

I hope that our report will be useful for all interested stakeholders, but in particular for our friends in Ukraine where the majority of IDPs is currently concentrated, Europe-wide. In this regard, we look particularly into the possibilities to promote this report more widely, especially in the view of the next local elections in Ukraine in 2020.

Thank you for your attention.