David Cordonnier, President of the Socialist Youth Movement: “Europe can be a pioneer”

David Cordonnier, President of the Socialist Youth Movement: “Europe can be a pioneer”


In 2004 in Belgium, Socialists convinced the liberals to grant the right of vote to foreign citizens.

How did the debate leading up to the right of vote in Belgium go?

This kind of proposition is always subject to debate in society, although it is a debate that must be refocused. The issue here is granting the vote for municipal (local) elections to foreigners residing in Belgium for at least five years. For me, the essence of this right resides in the participation in local community life. For the Socialist Youth it was obvious that when one lives in a place, has his or her children in the local crèche or school, uses public services, pays his or her taxes, etc., one can express his or her opinions and choose how and by who the community will be run. The issue does not go any further than this. In debates surrounding this project, I was worried by certain reactions against the right of vote for local elections for foreigners. These reactions bring to the surface hateful racist comments that we absolutely need to fight.

What were the initial demands, and what compromise was made to build an alliance in favour of the right to vote?

It took lengthy parliamentary debates to achieve the law of 19 March 2004. To gather a sufficient majority, an agreement needed to be made between the socialists and the liberals. Debates were complex but the law was passed. Nonetheless a compromise had to be found. The liberal partners had many demands: they insisted that foreigners expressed their attachment to the values of our country. Even though this is a completely abstract concept, the stipulation that all non-UE foreigners voting in Belgium would sign a declaration of respect of the national constitution, Belgian laws and the European convention of Human Rights was nevertheless integrated into the law. It is, however, a mere formality.

Do you think restrictions to this right might change?

For the moment, the debate seems closed. However, the condition regarding the length of residence was subject to lengthy debates even if the final consensus was widely shared. Extension of the right to vote for foreigners to other levels of power is not on the agenda, even if, in my opinion, there is some serious thinking to do regarding this issue. Today, people settled on a long-term basis can always make an application for naturalization and if this demand is successful, they can enjoy access to civil and political rights, granted to all citizens. It is an additional step that some foreigners do not take because they do not want to cut all ties with their country of origin or because they do not see the need to it. However these people are excluded from the democratic debate because they are not given a voice. Unfortunately, granting the right to vote on a local level was already such a traumatic debate that it is not simple to re-open it – this would be like opening Pandora’s box for latent racism. However, debates on democracy shouldn’t avoid these issues.

Soon after the first local elections where foreign citizens could vote, we now have to deal with the issue of how to improve participation. As you know, in Belgium, the right to vote is mandatory and everyone is registered on the electoral lists. Once they are on these lists, they have the obligation to vote. Unfortunately, on 14 October 2013, only a few foreign citizens were signed up. We need to continue raising public awareness so that they take interest in the democratic debate and that they sign up on electoral lists. Unfortunately, this is rarely a priority during electoral campaigns. We have six years to discuss it again.

How to give new impetus to this right at a European level?

Europe could be a pioneer in this regard. We must remember that it thanks to the European Union that progress concerning the right for foreigners to vote was first made, since it claimed the right for European citizens. We can definitely say that it was a success for Belgium, especially in Brussels, where many candidates and elected representatives are non-Belgian but are European citizens and are committed to and involved in local affairs. The status of Brussels as a European capital and the large presence of European political staff is certainly a significant reason for this success. It was also a success for villages located in border areas where trans-border issues are crucial. The issue is more complex elsewhere, I agree. Having said that, Europe must continue to encourage democracy not only at a local and European level, but also at a regional and national level. However, the rise of conservatisms and identitarian closure in Europe is frightening and does not bode well for democracy. It is thus our duty as citizens to oppose, at a European level, any type of extremism and identitarian closure based on so-called national values that, in some cases, only conceal extremism redolent of racism.

Statement collected by Julien Vanhée