Legal experts divided on “gray passport” holders’ right to vote in EU elections (5)

Elections in Estonia. (Martin Dremljuga/ERR)
By Madis Hindre
4/15/2016 4:57 PM
Category: News

While former European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judge Rait Maruste supported MEP Yana Toom and her Latvian colleagues’ petition to grant voting rights in European Parliament elections to legally stateless holders of aliens passports, University of Tartu jurist Carri Ginter found that the petition was in direct conflict with EU treaties.

MEP Yana Toom found it unjust that stateless persons living in Estonia, referred to as “gray passport” holders in reference to the color of the Estonian-issued aliens passports, could not participate in European Parliament elections, reported ERR radio news. In order to expand their voting rights, Toom collaborated with Latvian colleagues to draw up a corresponding petition.

“The objective of the petition is to granted voting rights in European Parliament elections to those that live in the EU and pay taxes but are regarded in the eyes of the law as citizens of a third state,” explained Toom. “What goes on in the EU affects us all, including holders of gray passports.”

The argument put forward by the authors of the petition was that how many seats a member state had in the European Parliament was determined based on the country’s population, and therefore it was unjust if a portion of potential voters were unable to send their own representative to the European Parliament.

Former ECHR judge Rait Maruste agreed with this argument. “The European Parliament is considered a representative body for the entire population of the EU, and so it would be natural to assume that those who are not citizens could participate in European Parliament voting as well,” Maruste explained.

Ginter: petition not consistent with EU treaty

University of Tartu Associate Professor of European Law Carri Ginter did not agree with the premise of the petition, however, as he found that it was in direct conflict with the Treaty on European Union. “The Treaty on European Union states that ‘Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union,’ and that citizens of the Union shall have ‘the right to vote … in elections to the European Parliament,’” explained Ginter.

According to the jurist, the treaty also stated that the European Parliament is comprised of representatives of citizens of the Union. “I cannot say how it is possible to read out from that that anyone other than citizens of the Union would be represented,” added Ginter.

Rait Maruste had quoted the same treaty provisions as Ginter, however in his opinion, the provisions did not explicitly exclude holders of gray passports from voting in European Parliament elections. According to Maruste, it was simply a matter of different interpretations of the concepts involved.

Citizens and citizenship

While in Estonia citizen status is based on citizenship, Maruste claimed that on the EU level, the concept of “citizen” was broader and included permanent citizens as well. Thus, according to this interpretation, a citizen of the Union was not required to be a citizen of any one specific member state; permanent residency within the Union was enough to qualify one as a citizen of the EU.

MEP Yana Toom shared Maruste’s view, citing that in Brussels, the term “Citizens of Europe” referred to all permanent residents of member states of the EU. “Citizenship is more of a mental concept here [in the European Parliament], and a citizen is anyone who is invested in this union and would to take part in its life and work,” explained Toom.

According to both Maruste and Toom, various member states interpret the concept of citizenship differently. Toom cited the Netherlands as an example, where permanent residents of the country were also permitted to vote in European Parliament elections.

Ginter, however, found that this subject was not even up for discussion, as a citizen is a citizen, regardless of language spoken. European Parliament Information Office in Estonia Press Officer Pille Vaher was of the same opinion, and stated that claims that some member states of the EU allowed noncitizens to vote for members of the European Parliament were false.

Vaher noted that perhaps any confusion may have been over differences in the process of becoming a citizen in each member state.

There are currently over 80,000 holders of gray passports living in Estonia.

Editor: Aili Sarapik

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