Will Czech Republic end restrictions on foreigners’ political rights?

Photo: European Commission

The Czech Republic is facing proceedings at the EU’s Court of Justice over restricting the political rights of EU nationals residing in the country. They can run in local and European elections but are not allowed to join Czech political parties or form their own. This goes against EU law, and although lawmakers had years to adapt Czech legislation, efforts to end the discrimination have only recently got underway.

Photo: European Commission
There are only a few foreigners – mostly Slovaks and an Italian economist – among the 857 Czech candidates registered for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. Foreign nationals permanently residing in the country can also run in local elections – but Czech legislation prevents them from joining Czech political parties, or from establishing their own.

On Wednesday, the European Commission again warned the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Latvia, that this contradicts EU rules. The Commission argues that foreigners are at a disadvantage in these circumstances compared with local citizens when standing as candidates.

The Czech debate on allowing foreign nationals with permanent residency permits to join political parties has been going on for quite some time. But with the exception of the then Constitutional Court judge Vojtěch Šimíček, who in 2007 came out in favour of changing the legislation, few other officials felt this was an urgent problem that needed addressing. Pavel Čižinský is a human rights lawyer who works with migrants’ advocacy groups.

Pavel Čižinský,  photo: Czech Television
“The debate sometimes sparks xenophobic reactions about foreigners who don’t want to integrate but want their rights. But I don’t think these are strong enough to affect legislation. In my opinion, the problem is that this is not a priority and many people don’t even know about it.”

Moreover, traditional Czech political parties are going through a crisis, losing thousands of members at the moment. Mr Čižinský says that in the 12 years he’s worked with foreigners in the Czech Republic, only one person mentioned they felt discriminated against because he could not join a political party.

Human rights advocates argue, however, that giving immigrants the chance to take part in political life would allow them to better integrate in society.

Jarmila Balážová,  photo: Martina Pavloušková
But Czech legislators will probably act because of a more mundane motivation: the country will face legal action by the European Commission if it does not bring its law in line with EU legislation. Jarmila Balážová is the spokeswoman for Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier.

“Last December, the government’s committee for foreigners’ rights recommended the government assign the Interior Ministry to draft legislation that would allow foreigners with permanent residency to join political parties. That bill should be presented to the government by the end of this year.”

The European Commission, meanwhile, has given the Czech Republic two months to respond to the criticism. If it fails to justify its position, the case will be referred to the EU’s Court of Justice.