One Man, No Vote

On May 8, European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding announced 12 new proposals to boost citizens’ rights in the EU. Point six – aimed at “strengthening citizens’ participation in the democratic process” – pledges to work on ways to “enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin. The practice in some Member States of depriving their citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country effectively is tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement.”

One of the member states Reding is referring to is Britain, which stops citizens voting in their motherland after 15 years abroad. I am a victim of this absurd rule and although the European Commission’s chances of forcing London to change the law are slim – what voting systems member states use is a matter for them, not the EU – it is a welcome move.

I wrote about this issue in an editorial piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. As it is now behind their paywall I am publishing it here:

At the beginning of March I was stripped of my right to vote in Britain, the country where I was born, educated and spent the first 25 years of my life, whose passport I travel under and whose political system I follow closer than any other.

I have committed no heinous crime, renounced my motherland or adopted another nationality. The simple reason why I have been deprived of my most fundamental democratic right – a right campaigners fought centuries to obtain in Europe and one still denied to hundreds of millions of people around the globe – is because I have lived outside the United Kingdom for more than 15 years.

Since March 1993 I have been based in Belgium, a country so tantalizingly close to home that I can be in the centre of London in less than two hours, watch BBC One and Two on my television and buy Marmite, Welsh lamb and Scottish shortbread in my local supermarket.

The European Union, which has its headquarters in the Belgian capital Brussels, encourages its citizens to live in other EU member states and offers them most of the rights natives of those countries enjoy. In today’s Europe, for example, it is quite possible for a German, Czech or Dutch citizen to jump in his car, drive to Spain or Italy without showing his passport, set up a business or claim unemployment benefit in that country and vote in local, national or European Parliament elections. The one thing non-natives cannot do is vote in national elections – except for citizens of Ireland and Commonwealth countries, like Cyprus and Malta, who are resident in the UK.

So not only have I lost the right to vote in British elections, I am barred from casting my ballot in Belgian national polls too. In effect, I have become disenfranchised – forbidden from having any say in which government makes the laws I have to obey and levies the taxes I pay.

Since 2002, British law states that expats who have been living abroad for more than 15 years are ineligible to vote in UK local, regional and national elections. The rationale offered by British officials is that over time the connection with the motherland is weakened and voters living in far-flung places are incapable of making a sage decision on polling day.

There is a nugget of truth in this. Of the 5.5 million voters living abroad for more than one year, only 13,000 are registered to vote in general elections – although those outside the country for more than 15 years do not even have this option.

“It is paradoxical that as an expat you can no longer vote in a UK election after 15 years abroad but you are entitled to stand as a candidate there,” says Graham Watson, a British lawmaker and leader of the Liberal grouping in the European Parliament. “The simple fact of living on the other side of the English Channel does not mean a loss of interest in British politics. Indeed the several thousand British nationals living in Brussels are likely to have more interest than the average Briton back home.”

Maybe if more expats were allowed to vote, more overseas voters would register. But the Labour government, which introduced the 2002 bill, has no intention of loosening the law. Even attempts at promoting voting abroad are met with resistance by some backbenchers. “I have nothing against those who live abroad, but they often pay no taxes and break the connection,” said Labour member of parliament Tony Lloyd in a February House of Commons debate on boosting voter turn-out. “I would far sooner encourage UK residents to vote rather than those living overseas.”

Lloyd paints a picture of British expats as tax-dodging sun-seekers out-of-touch with contemporary Britain. But this crude caricature does not take account of the reality of UK emigration. Only a tiny minority flee Britain cursing its foul weather, lousy public services and archaic political system and vowing never to return. The vast majority leave to join loved-ones abroad, further careers in other countries or simply take advantage of EU laws that encourage Europeans to mix and mingle. They often continue to pay taxes and hold property in Britain and have every intention of returning.

Instead of treating millions of its citizens with contempt, the British government should follow the example of the United States – which allows its citizens to vote in national elections regardless of the period spent overseas. Or it could adopt a ‘use it or lose it’ system whereby UK citizens living abroad would be asked to declare whether they wish to remain on the electoral register and to repeat that declaration annually.

In the long term EU citizens should be able to choose whether to vote in parliamentary elections in their country of origin or in their country of residence. The Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document, mentions ‘four freedoms’ underpinning the single market: the free movement of goods, persons and capital and the freedom to provide services. Fifty years after the blueprint was signed, is it too much to expect EU leaders to add ‘freedom to vote’ to the list of liberties enjoyed by Europeans?


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