190805 Sandro Gozi
Sandro Gozi Image Credit: Bloomberg

Sandro Gozi, the former Italian minister now working for the French government, could be a man of the future — a politician for whom borders between European Union countries don’t exist.

The populist leader of one of Italy’s governing parties has accused Gozi of betraying his homeland. That looks unfair. There is a strong case for allowing the 4 per cent of EU citizens living outside their home countries to vote and run for office where they reside rather than where their passports were issued.

Gozi, a career diplomat, worked for the European Commission in Brussels, then won a seat in the Italian parliament and served as undersecretary for European affairs. That came to an end last year when the centre-left Democratic Party lost power to the Five Star-League coalition. The fluent French speaker then fell in with President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the March party and, along with several other foreigners, secured a place on its electoral list for the European Parliament.

A right to vote and run anywhere in the EU would make this European alignment a meaningful option for all politically-minded Europeans and help shape a common identity.

- Leonid Bershidsky

Macron is an advocate of transnational party lists for the European Parliament, an idea that has failed to take off in an EU that is, for the main part, still run by member states’ national leaders. So he has created one of his own. Gozi will become a member of the European Parliament once the UK pulls out of the EU and its seats are redistributed among the remaining member states. In the meantime, he is advising French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on European policy, a role for which he is eminently qualified.

Five Star leader Luigi di Maio sees it differently, though. He responded by saying: “You represent and serve the Italian state and then at some point you betray it and enlist for a different government. We have much in common with France, but we also have conflicting interests.”Borde

Borderless politics

Gozi, of course, is within his rights. The EU has an open labour market, and citizens can vote and be elected in any country’s municipal and European Parliament elections. Di Maio has said the government should consider stripping him of his citizenship, but that threat would be unlikely to stand up in a European court. The case, however, draws attention to a broader issue: Should Europe’s politics be as borderless as its labour market?

In many ways, the answer is yes. The millions of people who live outside their home states pay their taxes in their countries of residence, but can’t vote in general elections. That puts them at a disadvantage, particularly as their interests differ from those of their less mobile neighbours. As Alberto Alemanno, an Italian academic who lives in Spain and works in France, put it in a recent Guardian op-ed: “How representative can a local candidate — who’s never experienced our brand of mobility — really be for us?”

Letting expats vote and run where they live makes more sense than having them take part in elections in their countries of origin. They have more affinity with their local agenda than with that of their distant home; though turnout among “mobile Europeans” in municipal elections is much lower than among local citizens, millions of them do vote. And countries have elected foreigners in municipal elections. In June, the people of Rostock in northeastern Germany elected Danish citizen Clauss Ruhe Madsen as their mayor.

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Putting expats on local voter rolls is a simpler process than trying to organise foreign voting — something some EU countries, such as Ireland and Greece, don’t even try to do.

The idea isn’t new; in 2013, Euronews Chief Executive Officer Philippe Cayla and a number of like-minded allies launched a European citizens’ initiative demanding EU citizens get the right to vote where they live. It failed to get the 1 million signatures necessary for the European Commission to consider proposing the change.

The arguments against enfranchising expats aren’t easy to dismiss. For one thing, national parliaments and governments make decisions that affect the future as well as the present. Some argue that non-citizens don’t have a stake in a country’s future, even if they live there today. Besides, if residency were to confer electoral rights, it would be illogical to enfranchise only EU citizens alone — and then almost anyone could vote anywhere, possibly in several countries at once.

The answer to these concerns, though, is that all Europeans are, in some way, invested in the future of the Union — something that is shaped by the national parliaments and governments as much as by supranational institutions. This distinguishes the citizens of EU member states from other resident foreigners. It’s also a big argument in favour of EU-wide electoral rolls.

Conflicts and diverging interests

Gozi isn’t the only European politician to seek a seat in the European Parliament outside his home country — former Polish deputy prime minister Jacek Rostowski tried in London and as did former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in Germany. But only the Italian still has a chance of a seat. Voters may still be unaccustomed to supporting people who have served in foreign governments. But they may start to see experienced politicians from neighbouring countries as a valuable resource. A mood change, say, in Poland may keep talented individuals out of office there — but they could still find support elsewhere.

Di Maio is right that conflicts arise between the EU and its member states from time to time as their interests diverge. But not all Italian citizens happily back the populist government there. And since it says both “European Union” and “Italy” on their passports, they can be excused for deciding that they are more aligned with the EU than with today’s Italy — and for trying to smooth out these conflicts by working for whichever country needs their expertise.

A right to vote and run anywhere in the EU would make this European alignment a meaningful option for all politically-minded Europeans and help shape a common identity. It’s hard to imagine most European governments supporting the idea today, but the more people follow Gozi’s example, the more likely it is that a true European citizenship will one day emerge.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist