Get out and vote

27th May 2004, Comments 0 comments

On 10 June the Netherlands will be holding the election for the European Parliament. We look at the role expats can play in the democratic process.

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In two weeks, millions of Dutch people will be filing into curtained booths across the country to vote in European and regional elections. And thanks to EU law, several thousand expats look set to join them as they exercise their democratic right. Well that's the plan — but is it worth it?


Who can vote?

"He who pays the piper calls the tune," but as far as expats are concerned, elections in their country of residence are usually off limits.

Here in the Netherlands, expats are obliged to pay tax, but can't vote in the parliamentary elections for the politicians who will decide how to spend those same tax euros.

To anyone familiar with the phrase "no taxation without representation" this might seem grossly unfair, but that is the way the law works in the Netherlands at the moment.

In contrast, all registered expats, aged 18 and above, can cast their ballot in the Dutch local elections and European Union citizens, 18 or older, living in the Netherlands can vote in the European elections.

It is wise to exercise those rights as local government and the European Union apparatus also decide how a large chunk of their hard-earned cash will be spent and take important decisions that directly impact everyone.

So all expats have a vote in the European election on 10 June?

It's not that simple, unfortunately.

The EU poll is only open to citizens from European Union countries.

Since 1 May this year that means the following states:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Cyprus
  • The Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands
  • Malta
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • The United Kingdom

If your country's name is not on the list, you're not getting in to the polling booth.

So as far as expats from the US, Australia, New Zealand, India or any other parts of the world not part of the EU are concerned, 10 June would perhaps be a good day to head for the beach.

First the bad news.

If you haven't already signed up on an electoral list then you won't be visiting the polling booth on 10 June even if you do hail from one of the EU member countries mentioned above.

Any EU expats wanting to take part in the European elections should have registered by 31 March at the latest.

If you did manage to sign up in time, you will simply have to go along to your local voting office anytime between 7.30am and 9pm and pick the party of your choice.

If you're working on election day, your employer is obliged to allow you a maximum of two hours to get to your local voting office to cast your ballot.

Alternatively, you can authorise someone else to go along to the voting office to vote for you instead. There is an authorisation you have to sign at the back of the polling card.


How do you vote?

The Netherlands has a "party list" voting system. This means in practice you will vote for a list of candidates in a particular party rather than an individual person. But if you have a preferred candidate, you can cast your vote for that person.

You can also choose to vote for no one. This is known in the Netherlands as "voting white".

A vote well cast?

The voting slip you will receive at the polling station should make it clear how the system works, but if you have any problems, stewards will be on hand to help.

At the end of the election, the votes will be added up and the number of members a party sends to the European Parliament will depend on how well it scored.

A high score could perhaps see a party sending the top five members of a list to become Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

A party with a low score might only send the person at the top of its list to the EU assembly or could of course end up sending no-one at all.

The Dutch parties are members of various European parties or factions, representing most strands of political thought: Christian Democrat, Liberal, Socialist and so on.

Dutch members elected to the Parliament sit with the faction their national party is aligned too. There are currently 31 Dutch MEPs in the European Parliament.


Who can I vote for?

Dutch politics is complicated to put it mildly and you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to picking your preferred candidates.

For the EU elections, 12 different parties are fielding lists in the Netherlands. They range from the former Maoist, but now mainstream Socialist Party (SP), to the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD) to the extreme Nieuw Rechts (New Right) grouping.

Even, the Party for the Animals (PvdD) is vying for a seat in the European Parliament.


Do European Elections Matter?

The jury really is out on this question.

Supporters of the European Parliament say it is the only directly elected institution the European Union has.

This means it is uniquely placed, they insist, to call to task the union's two other powerful law-making institutions, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers.

The Commission's main job is to suggest possible EU-wide laws, which, if adopted, would impact on the lives of everyone living in the Union. Since 1 May this year that means 450 million people — only India and China have larger populations.

The Council — which represents EU governments — examines the Commission's proposals and decides whether to accept, alter or reject them.

The Council carries out its work in conjunction with the European Parliament and on some issues the Parliament has real power to change or even scrap planned new laws.

But on really sensitive issues like taxation or fighting crime or terrorism, the Council calls the shots and the Parliament has very little power.

The Parliament's supporters point out that the institution's influence has steadily increased over the years and that in time it will be given more powers.

If more people voted in European elections, say the fans, the institution would have even more legitimacy and would be granted those extra powers more quickly, putting it in an even better position to fight for the interests of ordinary EU citizens.

So much for the optimists.

Critics point out that turnout for European elections was pretty low the first time they were ever held in 1979 and that it has fallen at every poll since.

In other words, they argue, most ordinary Europeans couldn't care less about the European Parliament and feel it bears no relevance whatsoever to their everyday lives.

Worse still, the critics add, those people that do turn out to vote in European elections tend to do so as a protest gesture directed at their national governments.

This often leads to relatively high scores for far-right populist parties like Belgium's Vlaams Blok, the National Front in France or the Austrian Freedom Party, which then end up with large numbers of their members sitting in the European Parliament.

Veteran French racist Jean-Marie Le Pen was an MEP for many years, for example.

The bottom line is that there is an ongoing debate about the role, desirability and usefulness of the European Parliament and opinions about the institution will vary widely depending on who you talk to.


More Information

Dutch government site on next month's elections (in Dutch)

European Parliament

European Commission information on EU expats' rights

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Belgium, voting, European Parliament

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