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Universal suffrage for Brussels? Why foreigners need to be given the vote at regional elections and how this can be achieved.

  By Philippe Van Parijs (Université catholique de Louvain)

(Also published as pvp's column in The Brussels Times 22, November-December 2016)





[Image: Eric de Ville, The Tower of Brussels]


Isn’t it about time that universal suffrage was introduced in Brussels? Don’t we already have it? We don’t. Here are the facts.

Over a third of the Brussels population is disenfranchised

Very roughly, the population of the Brussels-Capital region, one of the three regions of the Belgian federal state, can be divided into thirds: a shrinking third of Belgo-Belges, i.e. Belgian citizens of Belgian descent; a growing third of Belgian citizens of recent foreign origin, mostly non-European; and a growing third of foreign nationals, most of them citizens of the European Union. Like the first two categories, most members of this third category are entitled to vote at the level of the nineteen municipalities that make up the Brussels region. The European citizens among them enjoy this right since 1999, when a law implemented the article of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that conferred local voting rights to all European citizens. Most of the others enjoy it since 2004, when it was extended to non-European citizens domiciled in Belgium for at least five years.

At the level of the Brussels region as a whole, however, only Belgian citizens are entitled to vote. This would not matter that much if the proportion of non-Belgians in Brussels was no higher than that in the other two regions. On 1 January 2016, foreigners formed only 8.1% of the population in Flanders and 9.9% in Wallonia, compared to 34.6% in Brussels. Even with such a high proportion of foreigners, it would not matter too much either if in Brussels the bulk of the competences were exercised by the nineteen municipalities rather than by the region. But this is not the case, and is even decrasingly so, as more and more competences are being transferred — wisely —  from the municipalities to the Brussels region. Consequently, the importance of enjoying voting rights at the municipal level keeps shrinking, while that of enjoying voting rights at the regional level keeps growing. 

Does it matter? Certainly. Partly because the present situation amounts to unfair discrimination against a growing proportion of permanent Brussels residents, many of whom were born in Brussels, pay taxes in Brussels and cannot be expected to acquire Belgian nationality. Two thirds of them are citizens of the European Union living in its capital and they have no good reason to swap or combine their citizenship of another member state with that of the country in which this capital happens to be located. The present situation is not only discriminatory. It is also bad for Brussels. The city cannot hope to effectively mobilize the goodwill and commitment of residents it treats as second class citizens, indeed as subjects expected to comply with rules they are denied the right to help shape.


Voting rights for foreigners in all three regions ?

Is there any chance that Belgium will extend voting rights to non-Belgians for regional elections? In the case of municipal elections, the impetus came from the European Union.  It was up to each member state to define (in the annex to Directive 94/80/EC) what it regarded as elections for the “basic local government unit” in which all European citizens were allowed to participate by virtue of the Maastricht Treaty. Belgium opted for commune/gemeente/Gemeinde. A new interpretation that would include Belgium’s regions is hardly plausible. However, nothing prevents a member state from extending voting rights beyond the level of “basic local government units”. Thus, all European citizens are (for the time being) entitled to vote for the Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Island, as well as for the Greater London Authority.

Might Belgium take an analogous path? This is most unlikely any time soon. According to a recent opinion poll (published by La Libre on 8 September 2016), 54% of Belgium’s voting population is against such an extension, and only 28% in favour. Moreover, an electoral reform approved in August 2016 by the federal government, and likely to be endorsed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, can be regarded as a move in the other direction, namely the extension of regional voting rights to Belgian citizens living abroad. Such a reform, if confirmed, amounts to a partial assimilation of regional elections to national elections, the next step no doubt being — at least in sub-nationalist minds — the extension of voting rights in Flemish regional elections to Flemings living in Wallonia, and conversely.


Voting rights for foreigners in Brussels only ?

And yet there is a real possibility of moving forward in the foreseeable future, providing the move, initially at least, focuses exclusively on Brussels. The case for the extension of voting rights is far stronger in Brussels than in the other two regions. Firstly, where departure from the democratic principle of universal suffrage is concerned, there is a difference between 35% of the population being excluded (in Brussels) and less than 10% (in Flanders and Wallonia). Secondly and above all, Brussels calls for a distinct regime by virtue of its status as capital of the European Union. More than ever, we should be concerned today about the strength and quality of the relationship between the European Union and its capital. Such a concern confers a legitimacy and importance to an extension of regional voting rights to non-Belgians in Brussels that it does not possess in the other two regions. 

Perhaps because the case is stronger, the proposal is also more favourably perceived in Brussels than in the rest in the country. It is in Brussels that the opinion poll mentioned above yielded the result least hostile to the extension of regional voting rights to non-Belgians (49% against, 32% in favour, bearing in mind that non-Belgians were excluded from the sample). More strikingly, at a pre-electoral meeting organized on 1 June 2010 by the Brussels association Aula Magna, the proposal was submitted to the local leaders of all political parties [see picture].  All of them showed a green card in support of it, with two exceptions: the representative of the Flemish Christian-democratic party, a last-minute substitute for the then foreign minister Steven Vanackere, who subsequently said he would have voted in favour; and the representative of the Flemish nationalist party NV-A (which accounts for 2% of Brussels voters). Significantly, the recent upsurge of public interest in the proposal was triggered by declarations favourable to it (in Le Soir, 12 August 2016) by Brussels regional deputy Philippe Close (from the Francophone socialist party, with 23.5% of the vote, the main party in the Brussels region), immediately followed by hostile reactions from the Walloon federal deputy Denis Ducarme and the Flemish federal secretary of state Theo Francken.


Is the merger of Brussels’ 19 municipalities a precondition?

The problem, one may sensibly object, is that regional voting rights are not determined by regional legislation but by article 8 of the Belgian constitution, which can only be changed with a two-thirds majority in the federal Parliament. If a sufficiently strong case can be made for the specific needs of Brussels by a united front of Belgian and “European” Brusselers, perhaps there is some chance of convincing such a majority at some point in the future. But there is a less demanding, and therefore more promising alternative. It consists in merging Brussels’ current nineteen municipalities into one, coinciding with the Brussels Region. For other reasons, such a merger happens to be consistently advocated by all Flemish parties and, by virtue of article 7 of the Constitution, requires only an ordinary law. With the Brussels Capital region acquiring municipal status, Belgium’s interpretation of the Maastricht Treaty and the later extension of municipal voting rights to non-Europeans would then automatically kick in. 

Or perhaps not that automatically. Berlin and Vienna share with Brussels the double status of component and capital of a federal state. In addition, both are municipalities resulting from the merger, decennia ago, of a number of smaller municipalities, and containing a number of districts (Bezirke) that correspond more (Berlin) or less (Vienna) roughly to the old municipalities. But it is only at the level of the districts that European citizens are entitled to vote, not at the level of the municipalities/Länder of Berlin and Vienna. If Brussels is treated in the same way, the merger, by itself, will not do the job. In Belgium, however, there is a crucial precedent that leans in a more promising direction. In 1983, the municipality of Antwerp was merged with eight adjacent municipalities. When, in 2001, nine districts with elected councils were created within it, non-Belgian citizens did not lose their voting rights in Antwerp’s municipal elections. Given this precedent, there is good reason to expect non-Belgians to retain municipal voting rights in a unified Brussels municipality even if districts are simultaneously created, as is no doubt desirable, to preserve more local democratic life.


Only full citizens can be expected to ask themselves what they can do for their city

Whether with or without a merger, the extension of voting rights in Brussels will need to be made part of a broader deal that further adapts the structures of the Belgian federation to the challenges of the 21st century. Such an extension will have to count more on the support of politicians hoping to gain from it than on the support of the present electorate, which will rightly see it as a dilution of its power. Voting rights were extended to women in Belgium because the catholic party expected to gain electorally (and did so for a while), not because the majority of male voters were keen to give up their privilege. Whatever the politicians’ ulterior motives and whatever the reluctance of the electorate as defined so far, any such extension of voting rights must be welcomed. It is fair that all those directly affected by the policies of the Brussels government should be entitled to influence them. And it is vital for the city to turn as many of its permanent residents as possible into full-fledged citizens of Brussels. Only full citizens can realistically be expected to ask themselves what they can do for their city, and not only what their city can do for them.