Reding defends right to vote for EU expats

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The European Commission has issued guidance to member states that currently have rules preventing their citizens from voting in national or regional elections because they live in another EU country.

At the moment Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom have all applied voting regimes which prevent their citizens from taking part in national or regional elections as soon as they leave their home country.

According to the Commission, such rules negatively affect the EU's free movement rights and go against the founding premise of European citizenship which is meant to give citizens additional rights, not fewer.

An EU citizenship secures the rights to vote and stand as a candidate in local and European Parliament elections in their EU country of residence, but this right does not extend to national or regional elections, for example in the 13 member states where regions are vested with legislative power.

To tackle the problem, the Commission is inviting member states to enable their citizens abroad to retain their right to vote in national elections if they demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country, for example by applying (preferably electronically) to remain on the electoral roll.

Such rules exist for example in Austria, which requires overseas citizens to periodically renew their registration on the electoral roll. In Germany, citizens are required to be affected by national politics and be familiar with it.

"Practices such as these have in fact created a second-class group of EU citizens," Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding said at a press conference on Wednesday (29 January), mentioning that the journalists present should know about the issue as many of them are expats.

Reding added that today, citizens who move abroad can easily maintain the links to their home country.

"They follow the current affairs in their home country, they are interested in what's happening there and follow on TV, radio and on the Internet. They can travel home very easily and very often they pay taxes or draw their pension in their country of origin," Reding continued.

Growing support

The justice commissioner also highlighted that in a recent Eurobarometer on electoral rights, two thirds of respondents thought it was unfair to lose their right to vote in their country of origin simply because they reside in another EU country.

Rules for voting rights vary considerably in the five member states, the Commission pointed out.

For example, in the UK citizens are disenfranchised if they have not been registered to vote at an address in the UK in the previous 15 years. In Cyprus, citizens are disenfranchised if they have not resided in Cyprus during the six months immediately preceding national elections.

Meanwhile, Danish citizens are only allowed to remain on the electoral roll if they register their intention to return to Denmark within two years. While the rules will be particularly difficult to change in this country, as they are written down in the national constitution, Reding said she had received a "constructive response" from Danish authorities.

In a recent opinion article, British liberal MEP Rebecca Taylor also raised the issue of voting rights for EU expats. "It seems rather excessive that exercising your democratic rights requires you to apply for citizenship of the country you live in, despite the fact that your legal status as an EU citizen means you have the same rights and obligations as citizens of that country," Taylor wrote.

Timeline: 

22-25 May 2014: European Parliament elections.

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Comments

Ben's picture

If you are an American citizen who migrates from New York to California, then you exercise your right to vote in California (where you live, pay taxes and use services), not in New York. The same principle should apply to European citizens who migrate from one Member State to another one. They should be allowed to vote in the country where they live, pay taxes and use services, without having to change their nationality.

HD's picture

Ben, you can't compare the system with the USA. The issue in the EU is that a French citizen moving anywhere in the world would always be allowed to vote in France for all types of elections. He would also be allowed to vote from a Consulate for European and national elections. If he lives in the EU (in Poland for eg.), he can decide to vote for Polish MEPs (an than has no right to vote for French MEPs) or for French MEPs. Residents in another EU Member State also have a right to vote at local elections. Howerver, a British citizen living in another Member States would loose his right to vote for UK regional & legislative elections after a certain time. His voting powers are then limited to local and European elections in the place he lives !

Iwantout's picture

In the case of UK nationals they have to be resident outside the UK for 15 years before they lose their right to vote in national elections. This right is of course reinstated once they become resident in the UK again.

Given that that means that for 15 years they have not paid taxes in the UK I do not really understand why they should expect a vote at the national level which allows them to select representatives who will pass laws and impose additional taxes etc. that will not affect them given that they live in Spain, France, Poland etc.

In the final analysis they are making the decision to live elsewhere and it is one they are perfectly entitled to make, but one of the consequences is after 15 years they lose the franchise in the UK. As this loss of the national vote is not exactly a secret it is presumably one of the factors these people consider before making their decision.

A compromise might be to adopt something akin to what I believe the French offer. Ex pats vote for a number of MPs who only represent ex pats. I would suggest that in a UK model these MPs would then only be able to vote on issues that affect their constituents directly, e.g. the UK relationship with the EU but not matters impacting on national criminal law, education, health etc.

An alternative might be that after a period of time (5yrs+ perhaps) nationals who live in other EU states loses their right to vote in their own national elections but gain them in the new country. To amend a political quote “no representation without taxation.”

LF's picture

Iwantout, finding a solution to this is important. People fought and died for the vote, and it's not acceptable that in the 21st century - in countries that call themselves democracies - certain people are not allowed to vote because of where they live. It's not enough to say 'it's their choice' - it's the principle that counts here.

I happen to think expats should have a choice of which country they wish to vote in after 10 years of living abroad. I'm a UK expat by the way and follow UK politics very closely and am a member of political party there.

Iwantout's picture

LF,

I agree a solution is important. I offered two possible options in my comment.

You seem to prefer one of my possible suggestions, i.e. transfer of the right to vote after 10 years, I suggested five, either way the principle is established. The only point we might disagree on is whether the ex pat should have a right to retain their vote in their home country rather than the automatic transfer to their adopted home. I would suggest that after 5 / 10 years living elsewhere then the vote should be moved regardless of their wishes. (After 5 / 10 years not paying into their home country why should they be represented after all.) They could of course always move back to their home country at any time they wished and regain the vote.

Democracy is about representation where you live and where you are affected by the decisions of those representatives, not representation where you want it to be because you used to be resident there.

I accept that there is a debate to be had re who should vote in certain cases e.g. a referendum on UK membership terms with the EU but that is entirely different from national representation.

Barry Davies's picture

Let's be honest if you choose to go and live in another country, and your knowledge of what is the current situation in the nation you deserted you should not have a vote because a, it won't effect you, and b, your understanding will be diminished. There is no such thing as a european citizen so what is this unelected failed politician waffling on about?

LF's picture

Sorry Barry,

This has nothing to do with the UK national obsession. You should read up on how Commissioners are chosen. Are Whitehall civil servants elected, or even your local policy officer at the council? Thought not.

In any case, this discussion is about the right to vote for citizens living within some kind of a political and economic union, with human rights enshrined by various conventions. You've made it quite clear that the loss of the right to vote has implications on freedom of movement, so it is something the EU should look at.

Like it or not, the UK signed itself up to internationally agreed treaties in the past. Many years of economic mismanagement, a failed two-party centralised political system, and the blaming of its inadequacies on 'Europe', have led it to the situation it finds itself in now.

If the UK leaves the UN, the EU, the ECHR and every other body it threatens to leave then some of us expats may decide to apply for different citizenship. Others may be forced to move back home. To be honest, those I know, mostly educated people who pay their taxes, will probably not want to return.

It's amusing that the loss of investment in working-age people will probably have to be filled by immigrants from elsewhere, while retired expats could be forced back home to be dealt with by the UK's NHS. But hell, people get what they vote for - and in turn their opinions are formed by a small coterie of billionaire publisher... foreigners. Oh the irony.

Barry Davies's picture

What on earth has whitehall civil servants got to do with giving jobs to failed politicians?

The UK has signed itself up to nothing, a single politician who did a bunk right afterwards signed us up to it without a mandate because he had promised a referendum then didn't hold it.

The UK has not threatened to leave the UN it has threatened to leave the echr because of the foreign judges saying we could not deport a terrorist who was a danger to our nation. So far although there is a majority of the British public who want to leave the eussr we haven't been given the opportunity to say we are leaving, so I don't understand your point.

You are quite welcome to apply for citizenship of another country if you so wish, we don't need to be in the eussr for you to do that. The nhs already pays for your treatment abroad so there would be no difference.

HD's picture

Iwantout, living in another country doesn't mean that you cannot follow politics in your home country, even after 15 years or more! Yes French citizens can now vote abroad for specific MPs for expaxts but they can also decide to vote for MPs in the constituency where they are still electoraly registered in France. Moreover, living abroad - even for 15 years - doesn't mean that you would lever come back home...
By the way, the French system is now better than it was 5 years ago when French citizens living outside the EU had no right to vote for European elections! However, having 2 MEPs representing expacts as it was proposed at the time by 2 French MPs would have certainly been better than forcing French expats to vote for candidates in Paris constituency... And another to reaffirm centralisation and "parisianism" in France...

Richard's picture

Iwantout is right - it cannot be correct that someone who has not lived in the UK for more than 15 years still gets to help decide who runs the UK. This means they are free to vote for someone safe in the knowledge that for the most part they will be completely unaffected by the government they are helping to put into power. In essence an expat can vote in favour of, for example, a government that wants to raise taxes they won;t have to pay, passes laws which won't affect them, changes to a health service they don't use and so on.

The way to address this problem is to simply enshrine a vote to right in the national elections of the member state in which one is normally resident.

It is my view that if you no longer live in a shared house, you no longer have any say in how that house shall be run. You do not get to help choose rules you do not have to live by.

The UK's 15 year rule is, in my view, remarkably generous and should be reduced to five years.

By the way, I wonder if Commissioner Reding will be advising the Scottish Government that Scottish citizens resident outside of Scotland should be allowed to vote in the forthcoming independence referendum?

It is quite correct that Whitehall civil servants are not elected. They also have no power to initiate legislation - in the EU the unelected Commission has that right exclusively.

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