Expats can choose their local leaders. An Interview with Philippe van Parijs

All around the world the number of people making a city their home keeps expanding, the challenges on urbanization, social cohesion and resource management growing ever more demanding. Cities are becoming the place where ideas are transformed, tested and re-tested, the arena where dissenting views can often clash but also enlighten, bring about a different perspective. Citizens want to have a say on the decisions that determine how they live. On Monday May 7th, more than 80 major European cities have come together to launch a campaign that explores new forms of democracy, Cities4Europe – Europe for citizens, its main goals being: involve the citizens in a dialogue about the future, inspire government to put people first, and have an impact on the way decisions are taken in Europe. In Belgium, local elections will be held in October of this year, which in the case of Brussels means that its 19 municipalities (communes) will see Belgians and expats alike choosing their local leaders. To have a more nuanced understanding of what is at stake, Brussels Express has asked Belgian philosopher and economist, Philippe van Parijs, to share his views on these matters.


There are opposing views regarding the right to vote for expats (non-Belgian residents) in the upcoming communal elections in late 2018. Some say that expats shouldn’t be allowed to vote. What are your thoughts on this, your position in this debate?

No one is questioning the right to vote and to be eligible at local elections for all citizens of the EU, whether ‘expats’ or ‘immigrants’. Moreover in Belgium, after a fierce public debate, including a petition I co-initiated, the right to vote at local elections was extended to all foreign nationals legally established in the country for five years or more. There is no going back.

Recent numbers show that about 12% of expats vote in the elections. Why this low number? Is it a lack of information, a lack of involvement? If the latter, why?

One major reason is the electoral regime that applies to non-Belgians. In terms of their impact on the turnout, you can distinguish four regimes: (1) residents are automatically registered and subjected to a legal obligation to vote; (2) residents are automatically registered without obligation to vote; (3) residents need to register in advance in order to have the right to vote but don’t have an obligation to vote if they do; (4) residents need to register in advance in order to have the right to vote and are obliged to vote if they do. The first regime applies to Belgian citizens. It is the most persuasive, even though the sanctions are seldom applied in case people do not turn up, which happens increasingly. The last regime applies to non-Belgians. It is the most dissuasive you can imagine.

How could expats be incentivized to register, and to vote?

One obvious way would be a switch from the 4th to the 2nd regime I mentioned: register automatically as an elector anyone satisfying the residence condition and drop the obligation to vote for non-Belgians. A merger of all 19 communes into a single one coinciding with the Brussels-Capital Region would also be likely to increase the turnout as a result of increasing the stakes. Apart from these institutional changes, spreading information in various languages about how to proceed and about the unlikelihood of sanctions for registered voters who do not turn up would also help. But one should not expect a turnout among non-Belgians as high as among Belgians, as the information non-Belgians possess about local politics and the importance they attach to it are bound to remain lower, on average, than for Belgians.

Some movements have been fighting for the right to vote for all non-Belgian citizens and/or residents (for instance 1bru1vote) even at the regional level. The opposing view questions this request by saying: Why would any non-Belgian resident and/or citizen be granted this right if at the communal level very few people vote anyway? How could one make sense of this conundrum?

Such an extension of the suffrage at the regional level is very important in the case Brussels, where less than 2/3 of the adult population enjoys voting rights at a level to which more and more competences are being transferred. The turnout at that level can be expected to be higher than at the local level because more is at stake. But it won’t be much higher. What matters is that all the citizens of Brussels who have the time and desire to do something for their city, whatever their nationality, should be regarded as full citizens. Brussels needs them.

Some people have suggested that some communes ought to merge (they are relatively small). What are your thoughts on this? Pros Vs Cons?

The communes of Brussels are, on average, far more populated than the communes in the other two Regions. But they are stuck together on a small territory, with half a percent of the surface of the country housing more than 10 percent of its population. The resulting interdependencies feed a strong case for a merger, as they did in other cities, such as Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Antwerp. Such a merger is consistent with a more decentralized political life at the level of districts, which could be more numerous than the existing communes.