Living in another EU member state shouldn’t cost you the right to vote

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

We are often told that in the European Union human rights, democracy and the rule of law are respected. Although this is generally true, anomalies do exist, one of which is the right to vote for EU citizens moving from their home country to another member state, writes Rebecca Taylor.

Rebecca Taylor is a member of the European Parliament for the British Liberal Democrat party, representing Yorkshire and the Humber.

The right for citizens to participate in democratic elections is one you would think would not be questioned within an EU member state. However, as is the case in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, you can lose your voting rights after a certain number of years of residence abroad.

If you are an EU citizen living in another member state, you have the right to vote in local, regional and European elections, but not in elections to the national parliament – a right reserved only for nationals of this respective country.

This means that across the EU, there are law abiding EU citizens living, working and paying taxes in an EU country who have no right to participate in electing any national government.

Within my own family there are two such people; my aunt and uncle who are school teachers in Germany and have lived there for over thirty years.

They exercised their right to vote in the UK as overseas voters until it expired after 15 years. As EU citizens, they still exercise their right to vote in local, regional and European elections, but cannot vote in national elections in Germany. Indeed, my aunt and uncle have even been politically active through involvement in their local Ausländerrat or foreigners' council.

They could now apply for German nationality without being required to give up their British passports. However, this would cost them around €600 each and involve a lot of form-filling, and the only real difference would be the right to vote in the Bundestag elections.

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.

The current rules related to overseas voters in the UK mean that after 15 years of residence abroad, the right to vote is withdrawn. The most common explanation for this rule is that people lose their links to a country after living abroad for such a period of time. Another is that tax exiles should not be able to vote.

Both reasons do not stack up. With the Internet and social media today, it is far easier to stay in touch with your home country even if you don't live there, and high speed rail and cheap flights mean it's not too difficult to visit home fairly frequently.

The second reason applies only to a handful of very wealthy people living in places like Monaco. It does not apply to the majority of Brits living abroad, many of whom are not tax exiles, but merely EU citizens exercising their right to free movement by living and often working and paying taxes in another EU country.

Some Brits living abroad, such as pensioners, even pay taxes to the UK treasury and still cannot vote – a good moment perhaps to recall that the demand for "no taxation without representation" was a key cause of the American Revolution.

The local branch of the UK Liberal Democrats in Brussels has long been active on this issue. During my work on this subject as chair of the branch, I discovered that some British citizens residing abroad for longer than 15 years who still owned property in the UK were able to vote – essentially from their holiday home address.

I am unsure of the legality of this, but it seemed even more unfair that the small minority wealthy enough to own homes back in the UK (and not need to rent them out) while living abroad could vote, while the majority could not.

This is not however just a UK issue, but one of the right to non-discrimination in the exercise of EU free movement. Why should an EU citizen who takes advantage of the right to go and live in another EU country suffer a loss of democratic rights?

Last year, the European justice commissioner Viviane Reding said that the practice of some member states to deprive their citizens of the right to vote for moving to another EU country, was "tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement".

As millions of EU citizens (including an estimated 2.2 million of my fellow countrymen and -women) now exercise the right to free movement, perhaps the time has come to ensure that doing so does not result in the loss of any rights to democratic participation?

The Let Me Vote initiative is trying to do just that by demanding that EU citizens who legally reside in an EU member state that is not their country of origin, can have the right to vote in all elections. This would reinforce the notion of European citizenship as well as ensure that exercising your right to free movement does not cost you the right to vote. Doesn't it seem wrong that so many law abiding, tax paying EU citizens have no right to vote for any national government?

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