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Missing: EU expat voters in Belgium

19:06 27/02/2014

On the eve of the February 28,  the voter registration deadline for EU expats residing in Belgium, The Bulletin sets out to investigate why 92% of 690,000 eligible European voters have not (yet) enrolled to vote in Belgium’s three regions for European Parliament elections.

90 days to go!

So begins the final countdown to the European Parliament elections on May 25. While the EU institutions, news and lobbyists have been chattering about it for months, there is a worrying silence along the Belgian expat front. That’s because the current number of EU expats registered to vote in Belgium on May 25 is shockingly low: just under 8% of the total potential European voters.

EU expats in Brussels: far from setting the example

First, your initial reaction to the above statistics may be: “that’s for Belgium as a whole, the percentage of enrolled expat voters in Brussels is higher.” Prepare to be surprised: just 5% of potential European voters have registered in the European capital.

Such numbers would make Robert Schuman turn in his grave. Especially when you consider the 40,000 who work for European Institutions daily. They also make up 26% of potential voters in Brussels, so there's no question of their potential power to influence the election's outcome. So why are so few Europeans planning to head to the ballot boxes on May 25 in Belgium?

Dissecting voter apathy: the usual suspects

One could first point to the typical causes. Take the 2013 Eurobarometer survey revealing that only four in 10 Europeans feel that their voice counts in the EU. One French expat says, “When I was younger I was very politically active; now I see that whether I vote one way or the other, it just makes no difference.”

Another Spanish expat admits to The Bulletin, “I simply don’t have time to learn about the political parties and policies at the EU level in order to make an informed vote.” This, accompanied with the apparent disconnect between EU politicians and their (potential) electorate, is not encouraging.

But Brussels expats are different

So says a survey by the Europe.Brussels Liaison Office (BLBE). It shows that 98.6% of these expats are nevertheless interested in European politics. This is more than their interest in politics in their country of origin (96.6%). So what is preventing these expats interested in EU affairs from enrolling to vote?

Fear of commitment…

One obstacle, according to the BLBE’s survey, is that 49% of expats are afraid of enrolling in Belgium’s voter register as it means they will be required to vote in all of Belgium’s local elections too. “Which is silly,” reflects a Dutch expat, “if you want to voice your vote on an EU level, why not also on elections that influence your local neighbourhood’s developments too?”

… and Belgian administrative disarray   

Meanwhile, the other main hurdle is as plain as it is painful: EU expats are unaware, uninformed or misinformed on how to enrol to vote in the European elections in Belgium. First, the majority are not aware of the February 28 deadline to enrol.  Then, there’s the act of enrolling itself – a Belgian administrative labyrinth. “I’ve called and sent emails to my commune for info, and each time I get a cold response from someone who doesn’t even know the answer,” says a frustrated French expat from Ixelles.

All EU voting rights are not made equal

A Romanian expat brings up another important motivation for not registering to vote in Belgium. “If you want to vote for your national MEPs, it’s better to go to the embassy or consulate and cast your vote…because in Belgium, once you register, you can only vote for the Belgian MEPs.” Indeed, many EU expats in Belgium do not register locally because they wish to vote for the candidates they know best – their own national MEPs.

For others, however, voting far away from home or by proxy is not permitted. “An Irish citizen who lives in the Netherlands cannot vote for Irish MEPs, while a Danish citizen can vote for his country’s constituency even if he resides in another EU member state. However, a Danish citizen living in the US cannot vote at all, while a French citizen can. This is way too complicated and prevents many EU citizens abroad from participating,” explains the website of European Citizens Abroad, a group petitioning for equal voting rights for all EU citizens in European Parliament elections.

“One’s location at the time of an election is simply a matter of geography,” says Natasha Levanti, ECA’s director of policy. "No matter what, your views as a citizen matter.”

2014: the year that Europeans make a choice - regardless of geography

Ok, the EU has not worked out all the kinks of voting as an expat in another EU country. Still, don’t hold this against them by not voting at all. To quote the vice-president of the European Commission, Viviane Reding: “Europe is what you make of it.” By voting, you have a say in choosing what kind of Europe you want to live in. By deciding which 751 members of the European Parliament will be elected, you can have a say in how your European tax dollars are spent on matters like how to tackle the eurozone crisis, economic and political integration, a European single market and civil liberties.

So, take a deep breath, and figure out how you’re going to make your vote count. No matter how you go about it, just make sure your voice is heard.

Written by Kelly Hendricks



"So why are so little Europeans planning to head to the ballot boxes on May 25th in Belgium?"

"little" is absolutely incorrect in this sentence; the correct word is "few"

Mar 4, 2014 14:38
Sally Tipper

Thank you, this has now been corrected.

Mar 11, 2014 15:16