The Union's lifeblood is the principle of no barrier to the movement of goods, people or capital - and there are 5 million EU nationals living in EU states other than the one in which they were born, including 400,000 Britons and 1.2 million Italians.
A proposal from the European Commission yesterday seeks to make good a clause in the Maastricht treaty, enshrining everybody's right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections where he or she lives. This is part of the new concept of Union citizenship and a further hardening of the division between EU nationals and third-country residents who are not covered by the proposal.
The Commission is also proposing to make it easier for 10 million legally resident non-European immigrants to get nationality of an EU state. Plans unveiled yesterday by Padraig Flynn, Commissioner for Social Affairs, aim to integrate immigrants into Europe while also toughening up controls on illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The voting scheme must be given unanimous approval by member states, if it is to become law by the target date of 1 January 1996, but there are unlikely to be any problems. The commitment is already in the treaty; the principle has already been adopted in some member states (Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands); and there exist bilateral agreements, such as those between Britain and nationals of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.
For would-be voters, it will be necessary to fulfil certain conditions, such as proof of residence, and it will be up to the citizen to get himself or herself on the electoral roll.
Even then, certain offices may be barred, such as the head of local police forces. Luxembourg has a special provisional waiver because in some towns the density of 'non-Luxembourg' nationals, particularly Portuguese, is so high that it risks distorting national voting patterns and depriving Luxembourg nationals of a proper representative voice. Across the Union the new rules would enfranchise between 0.3 and 6 per cent of the electorate, but in Luxembourg this figure jumps to 54 per cent in some communes.
The idea is not necessarily to harmonise voting rules across the Twelve, but to ensure there are no obstacles in the way of Union citizens who want a say in the administration of their local area.Reuse content