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ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

Non-EU nationals living in Europe don't have many voting rights but some countries do allow them to cast a ballot in local elections. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?
Where in Europe can foreigners cast a ballot in local elections? (Photo by LAURA BOUSHNAK / AFP)

In December 2021 the New York City Council passed a law granting local voting rights to non-USA citizens with permanent residence (the “green card”) or a valid work authorisation, starting from 2023. 

Whether the decision will become reality is still in question, as the law is being challenged in the Supreme Court. But for the time being, New York joins Chicago, San Francisco and some other US municipalities allowing foreign nationals to vote. 

As this happens in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what is the situation in Europe? The answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The general principle is that voting rights are based on citizenship and each country makes its own rules. When electoral rights are granted to non-nationals, these are usually limited to local elections and do not extend to national ones. So neither EU nationals or non-EU citizens are able to vote for example in French presidential elections or German parliamentary elections, unless of course they have taken citizenship in those countries.

Common arrangements are established at the European Union level for EU citizens who move to other member states. They can vote in municipal elections in the country where they live and can choose to vote in the host country or at home for the election of the European Parliament.

In addition, some EU countries have signed other regional or bilateral agreements that guarantee voting rights to non-nationals. 

So where can non-EU citizens vote in the European Union? This is where things stand in the EU and in particular in the nine European countries covered by The Local.

The Nordics

In addition to EU citizens, Denmark allows all non-nationals to vote in local elections as long as they have at least four years of residence. 

Sweden, Finland and Norway (which is not part of the EU) have similar rules, but in Sweden and Norway the residency requirement is three years and in Finland it is two years on the 51st day before the election.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland also mutually guarantee the right to vote for municipal and regional councils as part of the Nordic Passport Union. 

Spain’s bilateral agreements

Another country that grants municipal voting rights to some citizens beyond the EU is Spain. Madrid has signed bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, the UK, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea and Trinidad y Tobago. The residency requirement is set in each agreement.

Other EU countries that grant local voting rights to non-EU citizens are Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia. Again, each country has its own residency requirements. 

Portugal has agreements on voting rights in local elections with Brazil, Cape Verde, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, as well as with the UK for citizens who were living in the country before Brexit. Some Brazilian residents have full voting rights in Portugal.

Ongoing debates

Austria, France, Germany and Italy do not allow non-EU citizens to take part in local elections, although the issue has been debated in recent years. This would require constitutional changes, however. 

In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, foreign nationals do not have the right to vote at federal level but they can participate in some cantonal and communal elections. Information on the political rights of non-Swiss citizens is available from this map on the Swiss Confederation website.

A special situation concerns UK citizens in the EU, who have lost the automatic right to vote in municipal elections when the country left the bloc. They can still vote, however, where this is allowed to non-EU citizens and the British government has negotiated bilateral agreements on local voting rights with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. 

But do foreigners bother voting? 

Having the right to vote, however, does not necessarily mean exercising it. The European Commission has found that electoral participation of EU citizens living in other EU countries is below average. 

Among the difficulties there are a lack of awareness about voting rights, the sometimes burdensome registration requirements, the lack of familiarity with the voting system or with local politics, as well as language problems.

In November the Commission proposed changes to current rules asking member states to better inform EU citizens about their rights and make information available in at least one other language. 

The ECIT Foundation, a group working on EU citizenship in Brussels, said the Commission could be more ambitious. The group requested in particular the creation of “dedicated helpdesk” for EU citizens moving across borders to “proactively engage with electoral rights before, during and after elections to maintain a constant engagement of electoral participation.”

ECIT Founder Tony Venables noted that, in some countries, the extension of voting rights to EU nationals has led to the inclusion of non-EU citizens too and better information about elections is likely to benefit also non-EU citizens. 

The ECIT Foundation is among the organisations behind the European citizens initiative “Voters without borders” which is calling on the EU to grant full political rights to EU citizens moving around the bloc. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

Strikes and queues: How airline passengers in Europe face summer travel chaos

Staff shortages, IT glitches, long queues and strike action - there have been chaotic scenes at airports around Europe already. With the summer holidays ahead here's the forecast for summer travel in the 9 countries covered by The Local.

Strikes and queues: How airline passengers in Europe face summer travel chaos

France

In common with many other European countries France is facing staff shortages this summer and the aviation sector is particularly affected.

ANALYSIS Why France is facing a severe worker shortage this summer

Long queues have already been reported at Paris airports, especially for long-haul flights, and passengers are advised to check carefully the airline’s recommendations for arrival times. Outside Paris fewer problems have been reported, but unions have warned travellers to expect delays over the summer as passenger volumes increase.

Paris airports were hit by strike action on Thursday and further strikes have been called for July unless the workers’ demands – for a €300 salary increase to cope with the rising cost of living – are met.

Outside of Paris no strikes are scheduled – but it’s hardly unknown for French airport and airline unions to call strikes once the summer holidays begin. You can find the latest on our travel section HERE.

Away from air travel the picture is less gloomy, with no specific problems reported on French railways.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from France by train

If you’re travelling from the UK there are reports of delays at British airports, the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras and at ferry ports, but the services themselves are mostly running as normal. Remember that since Brexit there are extra restrictions on travelling to France from the UK

Spain

In April 2022, Spain managed to recover 85 percent of the international tourists it received during the same month in 2019, as the country hopes to slowly edge towards the record 83.7 million holidaymakers it received in the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But just like is happening across much of Europe, it may be a case of too much too soon for Spain’s travel machine to cope. 

Flagship carrier Iberia has reported that an estimated 15,000 passengers have missed their flight connections at Madrid’s Barajas airport since March as a result of huge queues at passport control, a situation that’s being replicated across other Spanish airports due to a combination of reduced staff, increased travel and UK holidaymakers – now non-EU citizens – not being able to use e-gates.

Spain’s Interior Ministry has reacted by announcing it will deploy an extra 500 border guards at the country’s 12 busiest airports as well as allowing British holidaymakers to use e-gates as neighbour Portugal has done.

READ MORE: How Spain is tackling airport chaos

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of hundreds of flight cancellations by Easyjet, Lufthansa, Eurowings, TUI and more airlines due to a lack of staff, IT glitches and other reasons, with many of these flights being to Spain. 

Ryanair’s Spain cabin crew have also now confirmed their strike in late June and July, after talks between Spanish unions and the low-cost airline broke down. 

On Tuesday June 21st, Easyjet cabin crew announced they will also be going on strike on July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 15th, 16th, 17th, 29th, 30th and 31st to protest against their low wages.

Italy

Italy appears to have escaped the worst of the disruption seen elsewhere in Europe, with no reports so far of chaotic scenes or long lines at Italian airports. But that’s not to say travel to or from the country is guaranteed to be trouble-free this summer.

Flight delays and cancellations are expected on Saturday June 25th, as pilots and crew from Ryanair, Malta Air and CrewLink have announced a nationwide 24-hour walkout in Italy over wages and working conditions.

Italian trade unions representing airline workers warned earlier this month that there may be “a long series of staged actions which will run through the entire summer” after dozens of flights were delayed or cancelled on June 8th amid protests by cabin crew and pilots working for low-cost airlines.

Transport strikes of all types are a common occurrence in Italy throughout the summer months, with rail services and local public transit most recently disrupted last Friday.

Airports in Italy however don’t seem to have been hit by the severe staffing shortages seen in some countries, likely due to the country’s ban on layoffs amid the pandemic and financial incentives offered to companies for keeping staff on reduced hours instead of firing them.

It remains to be seen whether things will continue to run as smoothly at airports once Italy’s long summer holidays begin on June 20th, with many Italian families planning to travel abroad this summer for the first time since before the pandemic.

Germany

Germany is also struggling with the increasing demand for travel coupled with staff shortages.

Transport Minister Volker Wissing warned recently that the country is facing major disruption to air travel and called for a nationwide recruitment drive. But he better get a move on. Passengers are already reporting long waits at airports while queuing at security, and Germany’s biggest airline Lufthansa said it was cancelling 900 services around Germany and Europe this July. Despite the reduced timetable, Lufthansa said there could still be problems. 

And passengers will also have to watch out for the possibility of strikes. On Friday, for instance, Germany’s Verdi Union called on Easyjet cabin crew staff in the Berlin-Brandenburg area to walk out from 5am-10am in a wages dispute, resulting in disruption. 

Regional train travel in Germany could also be tricky in popular areas. The €9 monthly ticket for public transport means that some regional train services have been overcrowded. During the recent holiday weekend, train staff described chaotic scenes, with people not being allowed to board trains. 

Sweden

The big logjam in Sweden is at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, where staffing issues have led to long queues and missed flights since mid-May, particularly on weekends. 

On Saturday, the crowding and queuing at Arlanda’s outbound Terminal 5 was so severe that travellers had to be diverted to Terminals 2 and 4, with the road to Terminal 5 closed, and the Arlanda Express rail link ceasing stopping there. The airport’s operator Swedavia is now advising passengers not to come too far in advance of their flights, and police are advising passengers not to bring their cars. 

The airline has said it expects the delays to continue throughout the summer, but police expect the crowding to decrease this week with fewer queues than over the weekend. 

Sweden’s other main airport, at Landvetter in Gothenburg, is not suffering the same staffing issues, according to the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper, as the number of passengers seeking to fly from the airport has not spiked to the same extent. 

Scandinavia’s SAS airline is also likely to see cancellations in June after 1,000 pilots said they would go on strike. The strikes, announced by pilots unions in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, will begin on June 23rd if the company fails to reach a deal with unions. 

Austria

So far, Austria has got through a wave of chaos sweeping Europe relatively unscathed. However, there have been a few reports of delays and cancellations.

“The passengers already have to wait an hour at check-in, then another hour at the security. I have already been insulted by aggressive passengers”, an anonymous employee at the Vienna International Airport told Austrian media.

Representatives from the Vienna Airport operator have denied the reports. Still data shows that the recipe for trouble is already in place in the alpine country, with increasing numbers of travellers.

READ ALSO: Will Austria see travel chaos in airports this summer?

The situation is far from dire, though, and most jobs were saved through the government scheme known as Kurzarbeit. Companies could get subsidies as long as they kept staff and refrained from firing. 

The spokesperson for the Vienna International Airport has told Austrian media that they currently have about 80 percent of personnel from before the pandemic – while passenger levels are at about 65 to 70 percent of those from 2019.

It remains to be seen if that will be enough to avoid chaos just as people go on their summer vacations.

Switzerland

With the exception of “high-volume” travel peaks like Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, Swiss airports have not been overly impacted by overcrowding.

At Geneva airport, the situation is “relatively under control”, according to Sandy Bouchat, the airport’s spokesperson.

However, with the summer holidays around the corner, “we are all the more vigilant, as we expect a sharp increase in traffic”, she added.

In Zurich, the situation is relatively calm as well, though, like Geneva, it is preparing to handle more passengers in the coming weeks.

The airport has a useful site where passengers can see the situation at check-in counters on a given day.

Basel’s EuroAirport tends to be busy for two reasons: it has a number of low-budget airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair, and it also lies on the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany, accounting for the influx of passengers from all three countries.

This map shows the real-time road traffic information to and from the airport, which is helpful in estimating the expected wait times.

Also, while it is difficult to know right now whether this move will create overcrowding at airports, the national airline SWISS has cancelled or reduced a number of its flights from both Zurich and Geneva, and outsourced some routes to codeshare carriers.  

SWISS is also impacted by personnel shortage as it is among few airlines that emains firm in requiring all its pilots and flight attendants be immunised against Covid: in all, around 150 unvaccinated flight crews are not permitted to fly; nor enough fit-to-fly cabin crews may lead to more cancellations.

READ MORE: Which flights have SWISS airlines cut ahead of summer season?

Denmark

Long delays were reported at Copenhagen Airport last month, with the airport warning passengers it expected “to be very busy” during the late spring public holidays. These long weekends have now passed and the airport earlier said it expected to be fully staffed by June.

Staff shortages at security checks, caused by a lengthy rehiring process following the Covid-19 crisis, were blamed for crowds and long queues at Copenhagen Airport during the spring. 

In a May 19th statement on its website, Copenhagen Airport advised passengers travelling outside of the spring public holidays to arrive two hours prior to departure for European travel, and three hours before departure for travel to destinations outside of Europe.

Other Danish airports have been less severely affected. The smaller Aalborg Airport, for example, said this week that it did not expect excessive queueing this summer because it did not let any staff go last winter when passenger numbers were down.

Flagship Scandinavian airline SAS is meanwhile mired in a debt crisis that has the potential to affect a significant number of passengers in coming weeks and months. The airline in February announced a major cost cutting plan and has since reported quarterly losses of 1.5 billion Swedish kronor.

Although the Danish government has said it is prepared to back the company in the right circumstances by increasing its share, Sweden has made the reverse decision. On top of this, a major pilots’ strike is looking increasing likely after talks between SAS and pilots’ trade unions broke down.

Norway

So far, Norway’s airports have remained relatively free of queues and disruption. Avinor, the state-owned company operating the country’s airports, remains confident that disruption shouldn’t be too severe this summer

“It’s a staffing issue (airport delays), and here in Norway, we are much better equipped than other European countries, thanks to measures taken during the pandemic,” Øystein Løwer, press officer of Avinor, told VG. 

“During the pandemic, we had a clear crisis package from the state, which made it possible to retain workers for long periods. This, in turn, meant that employees at the airports (in Norway) kept their jobs and were able to return to work when Norway reopened,” the press officer explained. 

However, while airports are equipped to deal with queues, travellers are still facing disruption thanks to more than 50 scheduled departures out of Norwegian airports and their return flights being cancelled due to a aircraft technician strike, which could escalate further if wage demands are not met.

Additionally, around 1,000 pilots with Scandinavian airline SAS could go on strike later this month after trade unions issued a strike notice. Pilots in Norway, Denmark and Sweden have all said they would strike. Around 2,000 bookings with airline Flyr could also be disrupted by the delayed delivery of a Boeing aircraft to its fleet.

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