Like around 750,000 other British citizens, I live in another European Union country. We have chosen to exercise one of the key rights granted by the UK’s membership of the EU – to move abroad to live and work – yet are at risk of losing one of the most fundamental rights granted in any democracy: the right to vote for a government.
In 2000, the British Parliament passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, which restricted the rights of ‘expats’ to vote in UK elections. After 15 years outside the country, British citizens lose the right to vote. Not unreasonable, you may think: people like me have committed to living outside the UK, do not pay taxes in the UK, and are not affected by changes to the National Health Service, the education system, the police, transport, or other aspects of British life.
It is not fair to completely lose any right to vote for a national government
This is a generally fair point. What is not fair is the complete loss of any right to vote for a national government; to be taxed, but not properly represented. Existing voting rights for municipal and European elections – granted 20 years ago in the Maastricht Treaty – are welcome, but they are no substitute for having a say on the more fundamental issues of political life.
On Sunday, French citizens across Europe and the world will have their voice heard in the second round of the legislative elections (having already voted in the presidential poll). They will vote for 11 members of the National Assembly, representing constituencies as populous as the ‘1st constituency’ (Canada and the United States, where more than 150,000 French citizens live) or as geographically large as geographically wide as the ’11th constituency’ (which extends from Belarus and Ukraine, across most of Asia, to Australia and New Zealand).
In the first round, turnout was poor, ranging from around 15 to 25 per cent of those eligible to vote. Many constituencies are large and almost impossible to represent effectively. Yet the concept – already used in Italy – is at least an attempt to deal with the lack of representation for those who choose to live outside their own country.
However, a better solution exists – and is the subject of one of the first petitions under the ‘European Citizens’ Initiative‘, a cumbersome and bureaucratic new mechanism aimed at allowing EU citizens to suggest new European laws.
The ‘Let Me Vote’ initiative calls on the European Commission, as gatekeeper to the EU law-making process, to allow EU citizens to vote in the member state in which they reside, with the same rights as national citizens. It aims, say the authors, to “enhance the concept of European Citizenship… facilitate freedom of movement within the EU… [and] contribute to remedying the loss of voting rights presently experienced by a significant number of EU citizens”.
This is a better solution: I reside in Belgium, pay Belgian taxes and use Belgian public services; it is logical that I be able to influence, by voting, how much tax I pay and how it is spent. And yet I fear that the Let Me Vote initiative will not be successful: member states could well reject the idea, and would at least be sure to water down its provisions, by instituting a long qualifying period, for example. Belgium and Luxembourg – which have large expat populations as seats of European institutions – are likely to baulk at a possible ‘distortion’ of their electoral systems.
I reside in Belgium, pay Belgian taxes and use Belgian public services; it is logical that I be able to influence, by voting, how much tax I pay and how it is spent
Yet the current situation surely cannot carry on. Two hundred and forty years after the Boston Tea Party highlighted the issue of ‘taxation without representation’, the same issue exists in the European Union for people legitimately exercising their rights. No solution is perfect. But the Let Me Vote initiative is a good starting point.