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.
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.
EU citizenship gives people the right to vote and stand as candidates in local and European elections in their EU country of residence under the same conditions as nationals. However, these rights do not extend to national elections, or regional elections in the 13 member states where regions are vested with legislative capacities.
In the 2010 EU Citizenship Report, the Commission identified the issue of ‘disenfranchisement’ as a problem for EU citizens making use of their free movement rights and launched a discussion on possible solutions.
The 2013 EU Citizenship Report set out 12 concrete ways to help Europeans make better use of their EU rights, from looking for a job in another EU country to ensuring stronger participation in the democratic life of the Union. The Commission committed in the report to working on constructive ways to enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin.
22-25 May 2014: European Parliament elections.