If you could have your say…

Six non-EU citizens on moving to Denmark, being unable to vote and what the European Parliament should care about 

Over 1.3 million young people living in Europe don’t have a vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections, according to Eurostat data. They are the internationals, as British journalist Chloe Lovatt says, “that fall through the holes” of the European system. 

While some non-EU citizens with residency have the right to vote in local and municipal elections in Denmark, they cannot have their say in who sits in the European Parliament for the next five years.

Many non-EU citizens might not even be aware of the elections. As Bryan Roemelt, a cognitive science student at Aarhus University from the U.S. remarked, “I hear more about the Eurovision than the European Parliament.”

Yet they are acutely affected by its decisions. 

Data from 2022 shows that “young non-EU citizens living in the EU were more than twice exposed to a risk of poverty or social exclusion than young EU citizens living in their own country.” Young non-EU citizens are also 1.4 times more likely to be unemployed when compared to young EU citizens. 

Interviews conducted with nine people between 24 and 35 years old from seven countries outside of Europe, who reside in Denmark yet cannot vote in the forthcoming elections, brought up a range of fears and hopes for their future in Europe.

Two interviewees asked for their names to be changed due to concerns as to how their status in Europe and career might be affected by giving open comment on these issues.

Employment and opportunities
A significant worry for all interviewees was the squeezing of opportunities for career development and advancement in the skilled labour sector. 

“If you want to work in the EU maybe you will work as a dishwasher but it will be difficult to find work as a communicator” said Sandra*, who came to Denmark from China to pursue a master’s degree in journalism. 

Similarly, Prithvi Joshi, an engineer from India, said he submitted over 250 applications before he found his current position in a company in Copenhagen. And even then, he thinks he was lucky. “I was technically unemployed for about three or four months which I think is an amazing time period because I have been told people can be unemployed for up to eight months on average.”

Skilled young migrants help to generate economic growth, support development in their home countries, fill labour shortages and counteract the ageing population in Europe. 

Social precarity and safety
Many are grateful for the high level of social security and quality of life in Europe. Prithvi noted, “From global perspective, being poor in Scandinavia is not having a car. But being poor in India is not having food at the end of the day.”

While their physical safety is assured, immigrants still face uncertainty over their status. With the rise of far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, those without European citizenship are increasingly at risk at being told to leave.

Mark*, an Iranian-Pakistani journalist based in Copenhagen, said “I feel like I need to be careful. I know that these are free countries. But I’m in a very delicate position. I got a chance to live here, I’m trying to get settled here, so I’m super scared of doing anything and making any comment.” 

“Being a non-EU, you live like sort of a third-rate citizen and I think that’s quite enough for us. Because back in our country, it’s a disaster. At least here, I feel safe. So that’s a big privilege for me.”

Where does your power go?
Voting is a right, and a big responsibility. It offers a chance for citizens to improve social and economic conditions, but it also has symbolic power. 

Bryan believes that voting means being a part of the “historical record of what people thought at a certain time.” Casting a ballot signifies “no matter how the institutions and voting systems are designed, whether you are, at the end of the day, convinced to check one box or the other.”

And it also has historical significance. Chloe told of how she “learned growing up that women have had to fight for the right to vote so for me, the right to vote is really crucial; it’s been fought for, and people have died for it.” As a British citizen, she could have voted in the previous EU Parliament elections but is no longer eligible to vote as a student based in Denmark.

For recent immigrants, being able to vote is not always top of mind. Dealing with immigration bureaucracy and acclimatising to a new culture means their focus is elsewhere. 

Yet being caught somewhere between European and their home country democracies is confusing. “I can’t vote in European systems but I’m not too excited about American candidate prospects either. There’s a feeling of what can I do? Where does my democratic power lie?” Bryan remarked. 

What should Europe do over the next five years?
The six people interviewed for this story had a wide range of opinions as to what Europe should focus on in the next parliamentary term. Pressing concerns included the humanitarian situation in Palestine, Russia’s war on Ukraine, immigration, the rise of the far-right and effective action on climate change. 

Sandra is also concerned that if the EU Parliament continues to move further right,  it could cause tension in bilateral relations with China and cause the “split between the two sides” to worsen. 

Gabriel Aguiar, a software developer from Brazil, also mentioned the need for regulation to keep pace with the increasing power of data. “It’s just evolving so fast and we are so far behind. That scares me a little bit.”

Who gets to be part of democracy?
Being able to vote is an invisible superpower. When you have it, you don’t notice it. But when you don’t, it can feel like you don’t belong, that you’re not valued by the systems in which you live.

The Parliament is the only institution in Europe that European citizens can directly vote for. As a co-legislator with the Commission, the decisions made by its members have deep implications. 

Anne Rasmussen, a Professor in political science at Kings College London, reflected that in a situation where non-citizens cannot vote, “you end up being part of a society where you don’t have a say in or an impact on the kind of decisions that you have to comply with, that regulate your everyday life and who gets to decide them.”