The expat contradiction: how long will you be a foreigner?

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There are many sorts of expats: those who left willing to go back home at some point, those who realized they won’t eventually go back anywhere, those who left following a foreign spouse, those who left without a plan. What they have in common is that in most cases they won’t be able to contribute to the political life of the place they live their everyday life, pay taxes and raise children in. The idea that you have to lean in and take another nationality to be able to vote had some sense in a different world: one where people didn’t move that much, didn’t speak foreign languages or know different cultures easily. I guess the point was that before contributing to public life you had to show a proper will to become something else and embrace fully your country of adoption.

If that is the underlying logic, then why should we expats – even after decades away from home – still have a say in our natal country public life? With the upcoming elections in Italy I am a little lost. I have always voted, passing through many different états d’âme: I have been a temporarily expatriated Italian, still deeply concerned by what was happening back home, then I became a long-time expat who still fantasized about going back to the Belpaese. Last step is where I am now: I doubt I will ever go back to live in Italy, I have more and more troubles understanding the complicated dynamics of political life there (don’t think about reading papers to get it, they make it even more unintelligible) and, most of all, every time I interact with true Italians (those born and bred in Italy and that never left) I realize I am unable to look at the country’s reality as they do. I see it now through the often unforgiving eyes of a foreigner.

So, why on earth should I still vote in Italy when I am not allowed to decide anything about life in Belgium, the country I have been living 11 years in?

In my optimistic vision of the world, one should participate to the political life of the country he/she makes his daily life in. Which means that if you move, then your right of vote moves with you and you can have a voice in the next place’s organization. It would probably translate into a massive workload for the national administration (keeping track of moving residents) but it would be so much fairer.

Becoming Italian has become relatively easy a few years ago, when having an Italian ancestor has often proved  enough to legally claim a right to nationality. I have a South American friend who can’t speak a word of Italian and has never visited the country but can nonetheless participate to elections in virtue of an half-Italian grandfather.I can’t see the point of this.

Have you ever felt the same frustration I do in being glued as a political actor to the country you were born in while being forever labeled as a foreigner in the place you willfully chose to live in? Should all expats in the world unite and lobby for their voting rights?

9 comments

  1. You knew this one would strike a chord! There is a part of me that wonders… is this the new apartheid? Like when women or nationals of a different colour were not permitted to participate in the political arena? Could migrant labourers longer term in a host country demanding their services not also have a say? Should voting rights be linked to another measure of commitment to a country than passport alone?

    Like you in Brussels, I’ve called India “home” for 11 years yet can neither vote here nor my “home” of birth, having lost that right when I stopped regularly residing in Canada… Our collective “global citizen” voices are stifled.

    Bravo for sharing your thoughts on this!

  2. I was halfway through writing when I read your last post:) I knew we were on the same wave length on this..and I am sure we’re not alone but it’s rare to read anything in this sense. I agree it is a discrimination and one that feels completely anachronistic today…

  3. I am not entirely sure that people should vote based on their living in one country for a certain period of time. Voting is one of citizens’s rights in most countries, like participating in juries etc. and one should be invested enough in one country to be granted such a right. That Italy allows people who have never set foot in the country to become citizens is probably one of our usual legislative blunders. But Italy does recognize dual citizenship for most Western countries so taking up another wouldn’t force you to renounce being Italian. Being able to vote and participate in the legislative process is what finally prompted me to apply for American citizenship. I do feel a bit funny about voting in Italy still – usually it’s a mad scramble to talk to my friends and get some sort of direction. But I only vote for those who represent Italians overseas, which I think it’s somewhat fair (I am registered in the lists of Italians resident overseas). Having said that, it took me a long time to come to terms with what I felt comfortable with in this matter.

    1. I see what you mean but my point is not that I dont want to renounce to my Italian voting rights. I wouldn’t have any problem in giving them up since I haven’t been living there for long and I don’t envision going back in the future. What I think is that voting rights and nationality should be distinct. Living somewhere, working and paying taxes, having a life made of exchanges and social relations should be enough to guarantee a resident voting rights. Plus, I think that the political outcome would be surprisingly different in many countries (Italy first) were foreign residents given a chance to express their opinion.

      To take it a little further, I always thought public office (even at the highest levels) should be open to anyone willing to do the job, no matter the nationality. Expats could contribute with a fresh perspective to the political debate and this independently from their desire to “convert” to another nationality.

      1. Interestintly enough, legal aliens (green card holders) can hold some public offices at state level, something I learnt studying for citizenship, but can’t be voted into Congress or the Senate. So, yes, I agree that foreigners could change some voting outcomes and definitely enliven the debate. Regardless of whether they can vote or not, Latinos here are organized in a lobby that is fighting to give them legal status.

  4. Many years ago it was said: “no taxation without representation”. So, you ought to vote at least where you pay taxes. If you can vote elsewhere, it is good, but not being able to “say on pay” is logically a nonsense.

  5. I think it all boils down to how invested you feel about your country of residence: ultimately, does it feel like home? This is my last year of being able to vote in the UK (my country of citizenship) and I’ve had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have no idea if or when I’ll ever return to live there, in fact I can’t imagine it. On the other cutting off my voting rights there feels a bit like a slap in the face. I have no intention to give up my citizenship, I still have family and friends living there and so on some level I care about the country’s future. At the same time, I try to follow and understand Belgian politics but despite paying crazy high taxes, I’m happy to be passive here, to let others decide how things should be run because it is not ‘home’, I don’t want it to be ‘home’ and I’m hoping and planning to leave at some point. It’s not logical (or smart) but that’s how it is.

    1. I see what you mean about not being “home”. I am not interested in Belgian citizenship either but I have been living long enough in the country to yearn for voting rights. I think residents should have the choice, after all democracy is made by those who show up: some expats probably wouldn’t vote but we should give those who’d like to the possibility to do so.

      1. That I can get behind. Would also be nice if work visas were less of a hassle in Belgium and elsewhere. Vive l’expat!

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