Voters without Borders: an initiative to make Europeans vote
10 September 2020 /
In this interview, Eyes on Europe met with members of Voters without Borders to discuss their bid in passing their citizen’s initiative and the behind the scene of making it possible.
They are in their twenties, nationals from different European countries who have moved in different part of the Union. They have different backgrounds but share an interest in European values and freedom of movement. Today, they are a team of fifteen young Europeans, on a mission to give all European citizens a right to vote.
Briefly explained, the “Voters Without Borders” initiative aims to consolidate the right to vote for citizens living abroad. More importantly, the initiative proposes equal rights for all European citizens desiring to vote in their host country’s elections.
To learn more about the project, I interviewed two members of the team, Claire Dautcourt, a French citizen and Beniamino Brunati, an Italian citizen, both of whom are currently living in Brussels.
The making of a citizen‘s initiative
The European citizen’s initiative is an instrument that permits citizens to propose legislative acts by collecting one million signatures in at least eight member states. The instrument in itself allows for citizens to have a say in European legislations, although it has been little used by the public.
Voters without Borders, initially thought by the ECIT Foundation (European Citizen’s Rights, Involvement and Trust), came to be when they recruited a task force of young Europeans, responsible to carry out the initiative from start to finish. “None of us knew each other at the beginning, which was really nice, as we all have really different ideas for the project” says Claire.
The team is composed of only young individuals, an important requirement for the recruiter, as “they realised that with the march for the environment and already since the 2014 elections, the youth have become more politically active”. Giving for once the opportunity for young people to have a voice.
Since December of 2019, the team has been writing the legal text and taken care of registering the initiative by the Commission, approved in March of this year. With the lockdown however “we had to be innovative”. Instead of the usual going to conference for support, “we used the six months under lockdown to build a coalition with diverse organisations, and at the moment, our coalition is composed of fifty-five organisations all throughout Europe”.
The initiative was launched at the very beginning of September, during an event in Brussels. “We were a bit afraid that due to covid-19 only few people would show up” says Beniamino, “but quite a decent amount of people showed up, in addition to all the people that connected to the livestream”. All in all, there seemed to be a genuine interest for such a proposal.
The launch also kickstarted the one-year limit to collect the million signatures needed for the Commission to consider their proposal. “We realised we need to collect three thousand signatures per day to achieve our mission, which is huge. Therefore, our strategy is to mobilise each signatory to invite four more persons to sign, in that way signatories can become active promoters themselves”.
“In Europe, we were given freedom of movement, but we did not link that freedom to more voting rights…”
The end goal
First and foremost, the initiative seeks to reinforce the existing voting rights of national citizens residing abroad. “When we were collecting statements, we realised that for many people, voting from abroad simply did not work. Sometimes they did not have information in their native tongues, or the registration procedure was very different from country to country.” In sum, too many administrative hurdles make voting less accessible for people using their freedom of movement.
“In Europe, we were given freedom of movement, but we did not link that freedom to more voting rights. In Ireland, for instance, citizens living abroad lose their rights to vote when living abroad for more than 18 months. It is unfair that we lose our rights because we chose to enjoy our freedom of movement.”
Secondly, the initiative proposes universal suffrage for all European citizens, giving them the same opportunity as national citizens to participate in elections at all level. A proposal that may seem controversial in a time when nationalism is on the rise in Europe. However, Claire and Beniamino disagree, “if our initiative comes to pass, of course there will be opposition from the nationalist side, but I think that when presented with the evidence, most people will agree that it is the right thing to do”, says Claire. Beniamino adds “I think there is a minority that wants to see a federal Europe, but nationalists are a minority too. In between, there is a majority of people that may have never thought about voting rights for moving citizens, and those are the one we want to reach out to. I think we can get them on our side”.
Extended voting rights also means that elections are more representative of the citizens affected by the decisions. “A prime example”, says Claire, “is Brexit of course. We made the count and 1.2 million British citizens living abroad did not get to participate, when their rights were the most at stake. About 3.7 million European living and working in the UK did not get to participate either. In total, that’s almost 5 million that had no say in the referendum and today are suffering from the consequences.”
Contributing to society without representation seems quite unacceptable. Beniamino says, “if you are working, that you have children going to school, you pay taxes and participate in the day to day of the country, it is only fair that you get to participate in the elections of the country”.
Beside the goal of achieving voting rights, Claire hopes that they can raise awareness about the citizen’s initiative in general. “Many people think that the European Union is technocratic and removed from its citizens, but they ignore that there is an instrument that was created to give them a voice. Although it is not perfect, it is still worth using”.
“What motivates me is to think maybe in a few years, we will have a real European democracy…”
Investing into their own future
When discussing their project, it is clear that on a personal level, the initiative means something more. Beniamino is looking forward to the future. “What motivates me is to think maybe in a few years, we will have a real European democracy. If as an Italian living abroad, I share equal rights with my counterpart, that would make me feel as their equal.” Beniamino regards the freedom of movement as functioning well but is yet to be completed. When it comes to the European integration process, there are still many missing parts to the puzzle. “Our project is a way of uniting Europeans, to achieve the motto of United in Diversity. There is still a lot of work, of course. We are focusing on the electoral part.”
Trying to achieve changes by taking the legislative route is not easy, Claire recognises. “I hope we will reach the signatures, but I also hope that we can gain support that is transnational and transpartisan. I hope we can get people on our side. If we can give citizens a say in politics, that would improve the image people get of Europe.”
At the moment, there are seventeen million European citizens working abroad and contributing to society. Some of them are critical workers. For instance, six percent of NHS workers in Great-Britain are European citizens, who are indispensable during this health crisis. Yet, their voices were not represented in 2016.
In retrospective, the Voters Without Border proposal is a bid towards improving democratic systems in Europe. A democracy is seen as legitimate insofar as it is representative of its people. The question remains who the people are. Arguing that only national citizens have a right to vote might just be an outdated mindset.
[Want to learn more about Voters Without Borders and how you can support them? Visit their website.]