While the number of overseas residents in Spain has risen to almost 10% of the population over the last two decades, a new European survey shows that they are highly underrepresented in Congress, where less than one percent of deputies are ethnic minorities.
In comparison, in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which have similar percentages of foreign-born residents, around 10% of members of parliament belong to different ethnic groups.
The survey shows a marked difference between northern and southern Europe: the further south, the fewer immigrant members of parliament there are
“In the same way that knowing the percentage of women in parliament doesn't necessarily tell us anything about women, but instead about how permeable and adaptable our political system is to social change, knowing the number of foreign-born parliamentarians doesn't necessarily tell us anything about immigration,” explains Professor Laura Morales of the University of Leicester’s department of politics and international relations, who took part in Pathways to Power, which studied political representation in the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
“Instead, it tells us more about the ability of our parliaments to represent diversity within the population they are supposed to represent and, ideally, they should reflect,” she adds.
Foreign-born residents are not allowed to take part in national elections. In order to stand for parliament, they must either become naturalized citizens by having lived in their new country of residence for a certain period of time or be the child of foreigners who were born in the country. In the case of the Pathways to Power project, parliamentarians with at least one foreign-born parent were counted as citizens of immigrant origin (CIO).
The survey, which is still underway, shows a marked difference between northern and southern Europe: the further south, the fewer members of parliament who are CIOs.
In Greece, where ethnic minorities make up around eight percent of the population, just one percent of parliamentarians are CIOs. In Italy, the figure is two percent. But in Spain, less than one percent of Congress members are CIOs.
“We still haven’t been able to collect the full data on the new term that has just begun, but aside from the symbolic election of Rita Bosaho [Spains first black deputy, who was elected for Alicante as part of the Compromís-Podemos-Es el moment coalition at the December general election], I don’t think that overall the percentage has changed much because other deputies of foreign origin have lost their seat or didn’t stand,” says Morales.
France and Belgium, which have long traditions of immigration, sit in the middle of the ranking. Germany, which is less multicultural, has fewer CIO members of parliament.
The Pathways to Power survey says that after the Dutch 2010 elections, 13% of elected representatives were naturalized or the children of immigrants. In the United Kingdom in the same year, 11% of MPs in the House of Commons were CIOs.
But as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, meaning you need to be careful in interpreting the Pathway to Power figures.
France and Belgium, which have long traditions of immigration, sit in the middle of the ranking
From the 1990s until the start of the economic crisis, Spain experienced a rapid rise in immigration, unique in Europe, but these new arrivals have not yet had time to produce a second generation old enough to stand for elected office.
On the other hand, in countries such as the United Kingdom and France, which have longer histories of mass immigration, the children and grandchildren of immigrants no longer appear on censuses as such, making it a matter of personal choice in many cases as to whether parliamentarians choose to identify themselves as members of ethnic minorities.
The Pathways to Power survey also shows that there are considerable cross-national variations in the gender and age of CIO MPs across Europe.
In the years studied, CIO MPs are more likely to be women in Belgium and Spain, but the gender pattern is balanced or variable in the other countries. Also, CIO MPs are noticeably younger in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, but not so in the other countries.
In general, the survey notes that CIO MPs tend to be elected as candidates of left-wing or center-left parties more often than of center-right or right-wing parties. At the same time, CIO MPs are more likely to have a university degree.
“Spain’s position is surprising, but it’s because the left-wing parties haven’t taken the matter seriously”
The prelimary results of the survey also show that CIO MPs tend to have gained less political experience in their parties’ structure or in regional elected office before they win their seat in national parliament, and that so far, CIO MPs tend to be underrepresented in key leadership positions and on committees, although this may be a temporary effect resulting from their generally lower levels of parliamentary experience in some countries, the survey says.
Daniela Vintila, a researcher at the University of Leicester who is working on the Pathways to Power project, highlights the generally positive attitudes toward immigrants among the Spanish population, which suggests that its position at the bottom of the ranking is an anomaly that could be corrected over time.
“Spain’s position is surprising, but it’s because the left-wing parties haven’t taken the matter seriously,” says Professor Morales. “In Italy and Greece, the left has begun to encourage immigrants to join their ranks and put ethnic minority candidates forward. But not in Spain. Neither the Socialist Party nor the United Left (IU), nor any of the left-leaning regional parties, have adopted a quota strategy, as they have for example with women.”