The naturalisation of immigrants promotes democratic participation and societal integration, according to recent MPG research (ACIT) and a growing scientific literature on the topic. Studies are finding that national citizenship improves immigrants’ employment rate, income, housing situation, and participation in elections and other political actions. Naturalisation improves their perception in wider society. Naturalised immigrants are less likely to experience discrimination from employers, better legally protected against it, and more likely to report it. Naturalisation also advances immigrants’ rights and social inclusion. National citizenship is immigrants’ best guarantee of secure residence and equal rights. Restrictionists can take away rights from foreigners, but they cannot easily take away citizenship from naturalised immigrants. What’s more, the mobilisation of naturalised voters and their descendants is one effective response against the mobilisation of the far-right electorate. The more immigrants become citizens and can vote in elections, the more likely are politicians to listen to them and support inclusive policies. Immigrants can demand a place at the table as politicians negotiate the most difficult issues of our time, such as budget austerity, welfare cuts, education reform, and cultural, religious, and civil rights.
Immigrants in most European countries simply do not count in national, regional or European elections. Lower levels of voter registration and turnout are certainly issues. While studies often find that citizens with an immigrant background are on average less likely to register or turn out to vote, their participation generally relates to their age and education level, increases over time, and varies over election cycles depending on their mobilisation around key election issues. Instead, the major unaddressed issue is that most first generation immigrants are not even eligible to vote at most levels. Only naturalised citizens can vote in regional elections in most countries or in national elections in nearly all countries. Low levels of naturalisation and electoral participation among immigrants emerge as major contributors to the democratic deficit in Europe’s countries of immigration. The disenfranchisement of immigrants is perhaps the major issue undermining democratic legitimacy in Western Europe. Current voting initiatives around election time do not address this structural democratic deficit.
Unlike in traditional countries of immigration, most immigrants in European countries do not naturalise and thus do not count in national elections. ACIT found that in 2008 only one in three first-generation immigrants had naturalised in the EU-27 or EU-15 countries. As such, most immigrants remain ineligible to vote in regional, national and European elections. As countries facilitate their citizenship laws and procedures, immigrants are not sufficiently seizing these opportunities to have their voices heard.
Given this democratic deficit and the research suggesting how to fix it, it is surprising that so few integration actors in Europe are promoting naturalisation and electoral participation. Our ACIT research found that naturalisation is promoted by very few national governments or NGOs. Most promotional measures are few and poor-quality, even in countries with liberal naturalisation laws. NGOs do not advocate naturalisation for several reasons. Citizenship may be dismissed as a ‘luxury’ issue that is less important than humanitarian causes like fighting for a legal status and decent life for vulnerable groups. Advocating naturalisation may also be denounced as ‘assimilation.’ Progressive actors in Europe often prefer to talk about long-term goals of EU citizenship and national voting rights for all foreigners—but usually settle for local voting rights.
As a result, immigrants are rarely encouraged to naturalise or defend immigrants’ interests in elections. Instead, integration actors work ‘on their behalf’ on issues such as their employment, language, and education and ignore underlying power issues. This approach is short-sighted. The far right in Europe is paying close attention to power issues and has successfully restricted many countries’ naturalisation and integration policies. Integration actors cannot have inclusive integration and social policies without promoting immigrant naturalisation and electoral participation at regional and national level, where most integration and social policies are decided. Where the legislation is favourable, governments and NGOs should seize the opportunity to inform, encourage, and support immigrants to become citizens and voters.
Full citizenship is within reach for many immigrants in Europe and this project aims to show that ‘citizenship campaigns’ can stimulate the political participation of immigrants as citizens. A transnational network of practitioners will build and test a best practice model through local multi-stakeholder campaigns in Europe that aim to inform and encourage thousands of immigrants to become citizens, register to vote, participate in politics and turn out for elections. These campaigns will create the missing constituency on immigrant citizenship in cities and countries across Europe. These diverse coalitions can expand future campaigns to other cities and the regional and national level. An internationally-recognised best practice will also promote the idea at European level and in other countries. A campaign will also indirectly facilitate advocacy. Working with immigrants on-the-ground raises stakeholders’ awareness of legal and procedural barriers to naturalisation and voter participation. The coalition can then come up with solutions, drawing on common tools such as MIPEX and ACIT’s indicators and new international standards for naturalisation laws and practices.