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'Expats in Brussels are often very politically committed'
The international community of Brussels is invited to a debate in English in Ixelles on 24 May to discuss how "all of us must work together to take our city forward". The event, organised by the SP.A party ahead of this October's local elections, has been called because "we share the space and it is only right that we decide its future together".
Event moderator Gerard Oosterwijk is one of the people behind 'I Vote Where I Live', one of several campaigns encouraging foreigners to register to vote before the 31 July deadline. In this opinion piece, he explains why the expat vote is so important.
It is often said that Brussels has a democratic deficit. For a change we should not discuss the democratic deficit of the European institutions, but rather the local democratic deficit of the capital of Europe.
In Brussels, one of the most international cities in the world, the number of European foreigners in some municipalities reaches up to 35% of the total population. Brussels counts as many as 400,000 non-Belgian citizens. Of these, 273,255 are Europeans. That is as many people as the total population of Ghent. It is a group that so far has not participated much in local democracy.
Obstacles to registering
Sociologist Dirk Jacobs (ULB) rightly notes that this is not so much a passivity of the expat, but rather the many barriers that exist today to be able to vote effectively. Every EU citizen has the right to vote during the local elections in the place where he or she lives, but this does not automatically happen when you register as a resident. Another factor that scares many people away is the obligation to vote in Belgium.
There are, however, good examples that show how the international community can become more involved in local policy. We have to start with those thresholds to eliminate votes. In the Netherlands, all voters who are registered as residents at the time of the elections are automatically summoned to vote. After all, voting rights and participation go hand in hand.
But make no mistake: Europeans in Brussels are often politically very committed. The city is crowded with small and big associations that fight for clean air, mobility and bicycle safety. The typical European, working in one of the many international institutions, knows better than anyone that politics is necessary to really bring about change. Once that sleeping giant is awakened, it could lead to an electoral landslide.
'Enormous political potential'
There are already numerous campaigns to make non-Belgian residents of Brussels aware of their voting rights, such as 'I Vote Where I Live', of which I am one of the members. This is a campaign by and for Europeans living in Brussels. We invite fellow Europeans to register – which will only be possible until 31 July, even though the elections will not take place until 14 October. Other initiatives such as the One Brussels project by Brussels mnister for mobility and public works Pascal Smet (SP.A) goes even a step further and wants to give non-Belgians voting rights for the entire region, not just for the municipality.
The enormous political potential of this group of voters, potentially a quarter of the Brussels electorate, can shake up the political landscape. In October there will also be a number of European candidates who have a good chance in the Belgian system of preferential votes. This opens up opportunities to close the democratic gap and who knows, we can even weigh on the institutional reforms that many traditional politicians in Brussels are so anxious about.
100% Connect, One Brussels for People
Thursday 24 May 19.00-22.00
Mundo-B, Rue d'Edimbourg 26, Ixelles