Britons in Europe are disenfranchised while their EU counterparts’ rights hang in the balance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The French municipal elections which will take place on 16 March are the first since President Macron was elected and an important test of his popularity. They are also the first set of municipal elections in which British citizens in France will be unable to vote. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

The French municipal elections which will take place on 16 March are the first since President Macron was elected and an important test of his popularity.

They are also the first set of municipal elections in which British citizens in France will be unable to vote. This is despite the fact that the elections take place during the “transition period” when the UK/EU relationship was supposed to remain unchanged.

Not only will British citizens be denied the vote, they will also be unable to stand as candidates for local councils or as local mayors.

Yet research by Dr Sue Collard of Sussex University has shown that there were over 900 British councillors in France.

But under French law, those who held such positions had to stand down as soon as the UK left the EU (unless they had dual UK and French citizenship).

In contrast, EU citizens in the UK still have the right to vote and to stand as candidates.

Why this mismatch between the rights of Britons in France post Brexit and the right of French and Europeans? The answer is simple and reveals an unfairness.

On the one hand, EU citizens in the UK are still EU citizens, even though they are no longer living in an EU member state.

British law was changed to comply with the Maastricht Treaty to allow EU citizens to have the vote in local elections.

Therefore, UK law still stipulates that EU citizens should have the vote – there is no sub-clause to say that this right should be suspended if the UK leaves the EU.

On the other hand, British citizens in the EU are still living in an EU member state but they are no longer EU citizens.

Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal have moved to allow Britons to retain their voting rights post Brexit but France has not. Some member states, such as Denmark, already allow all third country residents the right to vote in local elections.

British residents in France however fall foul of French domestic legislation which specifies that only EU citizens have the vote in municipal elections.

The imbalance is  a very good example of why the whole approach to trying to settle the citizens’ rights issue post Brexit has been misguided from the outset.

The problem is that the situation of Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK is asymmetric.  Therefore an approach based on reciprocity cannot work.

Julien Fouchet a barrister based in Cornille-Pouyanne challenged the loss of the franchise by British citizens in the French courts, but the case was thrown out.

Meanwhile, Michael Siewniak, a Polish resident of Welwyn Garden City and former Councillor has written to Boris Johnson to find out whether his rights to stand as a councillor and to vote in elections will be affected by Brexit.

Speaking about why he had done so, Michal Siewniak said: “EU citizens want to continue shaping the democratic process in the UK and our voice must be heard.”

Of course the same can be said about British citizens in France.

In his reply, Boris Johnson confirmed the UK government would continue to seek bi-lateral agreements on voting rights with EU member states.

But so far there is no sign of the French government moving to enfranchise Britons or any third county national.

In a paper for the Journal of Citizenship Studies, Fiona Ferbrache, a Human Geographer at Oxford, has drawn attention to the restrictive nature of French electoral law and made the case for a more liberal and expansive approach.

She argues that “Brexit and the cessation of Britons’ electoral rights present a pivotal moment to discuss expansive citizenship and alien suffrage.”It is a rendezvous with history which the French Republic has so far failed to take.

The arbitrary denial of democratic rights to some but not all of the 5 million post Brexit only serves to add to the confusion and anxiety of all those whose lives have been in limbo since the referendum.

The EU could have moved to secure all the rights of UK citizens already resident in the Europe on unilateral basis after the referendum.

Instead, the Commission stands back and watches as the franchise is stripped from hundreds of thousands of Britons in Europe, who just like as EU citizens in the UK such as Michal Siewniak, still feel they have a contribution to make.

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