EU voters fail to register in Belgium: Europeans indifferent to, or ignorant of, democratic rights

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The Independent Online
THE new era of European citizenship has got off to less than a flying start. Even in Belgium, the country which hosts the European Union's main institutions, hardly any resident non-Belgians have registered to vote in the forthcoming European elections.

The right to vote in European and local elections in any state was conferred on EU citizens by the Maastricht treaty. But according to Le Soir, the Belgian daily, less than 7,000 of the resident half-million citizens of other European countries have been through the procedures required to vote in Belgium - about 1.5 per cent.

Disagreement over the reasons for this has already sparked a row between the different levels of government. The communes, the local authorities that run registration, blame the federal government for failing to provide information. The Interior Ministry says that it did its job, but the communes failed to publicise it. Le Soir says there were problems in translating documents because of local sensibilities about the use of language (Belgium is a trilingual state).

According to the British embassy, there were also problems in some communes with the authorities asking for additional documentation to prove nationality, saying that a passport was not enough. An attestation from the embassy costs 750 Belgian francs, or about pounds 15, and evidently some potential voters thought this a bit steep for the privilege of voting in Belgium.

There are about 20,000 British passport-holders living in Belgium, just a small part of the 460,000 EU citizens who have made it their home. Probably about a quarter of the total are associated in some way with the European Union. By far the largest minorities are the Italians, of whom about 160,000 have settled here. It is too late for any of them now: the deadline for registration was last week.

The experiment on democracy that European citizenship was supposed to constitute has already been compromised by Luxembourg, which was afraid that immigrants from Portugal - who constitute a majority of the population in some towns - would play too large a role.

The idea of European citizenship has raised hackles in a number of other rich countries where immigrant EU workers make up a significant proportion of the population.

Belgium tries hard to be welcoming to foreigners, who constitute about a quarter of the population of Brussels - but not that hard. Some Brussels communes make it illegal for non-European foreigners to live in them, so that Americans or Moroccans, for instance, are not allowed to reside in some areas and have to sport a differently-coloured identity card.

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