National Voting Rights for Resident Non-Citizens: The Luxembourg Debate

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


On June 7th 2015, the people of Luxembourg will be voting in a referendum covering four separate questions:

  • Should teenagers aged 16 or over be given the active right to vote? (The active right means that they would be able to vote but not stand in elections.)
  • Should non-Luxembourg nationals be allowed to vote in national elections on the condition that they have lived in Luxembourg for at least ten years?
  • Should the state continue to pay salaries and pensions of priests, diocese staff or officials of other faith groups in Luxembourg?
  • Should government mandates be limited to a period of ten years?

Although all raise fascinating points for political theory and practice, it is the second – national voting rights for resident non-citizens – that raises the most challenging issues for contemporary states in contexts of migration and for EU member states in the context of the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by EU citizens. On the 20th-21st March I was privileged to be invited as an expert in a wide-ranging intellectual debate on this issue held in the Chambre des Députés du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg in which a group of historians, lawyers, sociologists and political scientists presented a range of perspectives on resident non-citizen suffrage to an audience of parliamentary representatives, activists, academics and students. Organized by Professor Philippe Poirier and his colleagues at the University of Luxembourg with the cooperation of the Luxembourg Parliament in order to enhance political debate, the event exemplified how academic research can inform, and be challenged by, the diversity of political perspectives that characterize a democratic state.

The question of resident non-citizen suffrage in national elections has real political significance for Luxembourg. About 45% of its residents are non-citizens (with about 85% of these being EU citizens). On the one hand, this looks like a serious democratic problem with almost half the population being denied national political representation in its legislative body. On the other hand, it is easy to see that the people of Luxembourg might reasonably be concerned that permitting national suffrage rights to resident non-citizens would undermine their ability to control their own political destiny.

One response to this dilemma is to make acquisition of nationality relatively straightforward and on the 1st January 2009 Luxembourg introduced new naturalization legislation that permitted dual/plural nationality and a double ius soli principle. This has had significant impact:

The number of valid demands for nationalisation quadrupled, going from 1065 in 2008 to 11770 for the period of the 1st January 2009 to the 31 December 2011. The Luxembourgish nationality was granted to 11736 persons, quasi 4000 per year. … By comparison, in 2008, only 1215 persons acquired the Luxembourg nationality. Furthermore, by double ius soli, 3414 persons of less than 18 years age, born in the Grand-Duchy of foreign parents of whom one was also born in Luxembourg, acquired Luxembourg nationality on the 1st January 2009. Following the assessment of the STATEC (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), from 2009 to 2011, approximately another 1000 children became Luxembourgers by double ius soli, and 2491 children were naturalised along with one of their parents. A total of about 18500 new Luxembourgers in three years, mainly because of the innovations introduced by the law of 2008.

However, as already noted, the number of resident non-citizens today is c.45% with c.85% being EU citizens. For Luxembourg, it seems a decision must be made.

The vote in Luxembourg is also, however, also significant for the EU. Currently the EU has a demos problem in that EU citizens who exercise their civil right of freedom of movement may find themselves disenfranchised at the national voting level in both their state(s) of nationality and their state of residence. This is a democratic wrong but it is one that the EU as an institution has no competence to resolve. There are several possible ways of resolving this problem. But given (a) that the institutional architecture of the EU is neither purely intergovernmental (which would support tying national voting rights to naturalization) or purely federal (which would support tying national voting rights to residence) and (b) that EU citizenship entitles EU citizens who move to other member states to be treated as de facto dual nationals for a wide range of purposes, one fitting way of addressing this problem would be for Member States to allow such Second Country Nationals to become ‘Resident Electors’ after a reasonable period of residence. A ‘Yes’ vote in Luxembourg’s referendum (although it would also encompass a small number of non-EU citizens) would provide an example to the EU of such a practice. A ‘No’ vote would push the agenda in the direction of either reciprocal arrangements between specific Member States or expatriate voting rights for Second Country Nationals or some combination of the two. Luxembourg’s decision thus has implications that are wider than its own national affairs – and it is also for this reason that the engagement of academics, citizens and politicians in the event organized by the University of Luxembourg in association with their Parliament was such a welcome endeavor.

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