Three Members of the European Parliament have bundled their powers in the fight for voting rights of stateless persons in Estonia and Latvia.
In recent months MEP Yana Toom from Estonia, MEP Andrejs Mamikins and MEP Tatjana Ždanoka from Latvia have been collecting signatures for a petition addressed to the European Parliament. The petition raises concerns on the current method of allocating seats in the European Parliament. The seats are allocated proportionately to the permanently resident population of the Member States, regardless whether all persons of the population have European voting rights. The petition with more than 20 thousand signatures was handed over to the European Parliament’s Committee of Petitions on 21 June 2016.
While Article 14 (2) TEU states that "the European Parliament shall be composed of representatives of the Union's citizens", this is not necessarily true in practice. In fact, the calculation method used for the allocation of seats in the European Parliament includes permanently resident persons and not, as the Treaty text would suggest, the permanently resident Union citizens. Generally, the difference between population of Union citizens and permanently resident persons is insignificant and could be disregarded. In most Member States permanently resident TCNs account for approximately 5 per cent of the entire population.
There are two major outliers in this regard: in Estonia and Latvia about 15 per cent of all population are permanent residents who are not Union citizens. Furthermore, respectively 6 and 12 per cent of their populations are stateless. As a consequence of the restoration of independence of the two States in 1991, many former citizens of the Soviet Union and their descendants have been left without citizenship. Estonia and Latvia pursued a strict citizenship policy following the ius sanguinis principle, which meant that persons who were not descendants of pre-WWII Estonian and Latvian citizens had to naturalize in order to gain citizenship. The strict naturalization procedure in its turn has discouraged or prevented former citizens of the Soviet Union from application. As a result, there are currently 252,017 stateless persons in Latvia and 82,341 in Estonia at the beginning of 2016.
The petition asks for an investigation into the matter. It notes that it is unfair that seats in the European Parliament are allocated at the expense of persons who do not have voting rights in the European elections. The best possible solution for this problem would be to grant European voting rights to stateless residents – ‘non-citizens of Latvia’ (the term officially used in this country) and ‘persons with undetermined citizenship’ (the term preferred by Estonian authorities).
The right to petition the European Parliament is enshrined in Article 24 (2) TEU and Article 227 TFEU. Article 227 TFEU states that: “Any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State, shall have the right to address, individually or in association with other citizens or persons, a petition to the European Parliament on a matter which come within the Union’s field of activity and which affects him, her or it directly.” Therefore, while non-citizens and persons with undetermined citizenship are not Union citizens, it is still possible for them to petition the European Parliament. It is not necessary to collect signatures for a petition to be admissible: it only requires one signatory. However, this particular petition has caught national attention in Estonia and Latvia.
Non-citizens and persons with undetermined citizenship started to contact their MEPs, asking for a possibility to sign. The MEPs then decided to dedicate their resources to give every person who would like to support the petition the possibility to place their signatures. At the latest count more than 20 thousand persons have signed the petition in Estonia and Latvia. The significance this gives to the petition is that a large amount of persons feels affected by the fact that they do not have any voting rights in the European elections, while seats in the European Parliament are allocated at their expense. They feel underrepresented.
The Committee on Petitions has received the petition, which will now be examined on admissibility. A petition may be declared inadmissible for instance in cases where the matter does not fall within the Union’s competence. Due to the many petitions arriving to the Committee on Petitions every day, it may take up to a year before a petition is declared admissible or inadmissible.
If the petition is declared admissible, there are several steps the Committee on Petitions can take in accordance with Rule 216 of the Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament. First, the Committee will examine the petition and can invite the petitioners to a public hearing. Second, the Committee can decide to make an own-initiative report or to submit a short motion for a resolution to Parliament. Third, the Committee can also organise a fact-finding visit where appropriate. Another possibility is that the Committee forwards the matter to the European Ombudsman. Furthermore, “the Committee may request Parliament's President to forward its opinion or recommendation to the Commission, the Council or the Member State authority concerned for action or a response”. Lastly, a petition may lead to committee of inquiry to be set up. In accordance to Article 226 TFEU the European Parliament has the power to set up such a committee in order to investigate maladministration of implementation of European Union law.
It is difficult to predict what the response will of the Committee on Petitions. European voting rights are a complex area, as it is in the competence of the Member States to decide to who they grant voting rights in the first place. However, it does fall within the competence of the European Union how the seats are allocated in the European Parliament. It will therefore be difficult for the Committee on Petitions to declare the petition inadmissible, as it should at least examine the methods used for the allocation. Regardless, the petition will draw considerate attention to the fact that they are still a large group of persons who are stateless in Estonia and Latvia, persons who do not have voting rights on a national and European level.