One million EU citizens were deprived of vote in UK’s European elections

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

The Anglesea Arms pub which is open as a polling station for the European Elections, Central London, Britain, 23 May 2019. [Will Oliver/EPA/EFE]

New evidence suggests the Conservative government in the United Kingdom systematically disenfranchised more than one million EU citizens and Brits abroad, writes Roger Casale.

Roger Casale is the founder and secretary general of New Europeans, a former Labour MP and vice-president of European Civic Forum.

In a well-functioning democracy, it is the voters who choose their elected representatives, not the government which chooses the electorate.

That may be why the actions of the Conservative Government towards EU citizens in the UK and Britons living abroad is giving British democracy such a bad name.

As polls closed in the European elections held in Britain on 23 May, it became clear that something was seriously wrong.  A large section of the electorate was missing.

Anecdotal evidence emerged of EU citizens being turned away from polling stations, some being told, insultingly, that they should “go and vote in their home countries” even though the UK is their home.  A campaign under the hashtag #DeniedMyVote went viral.

It further became clear that many Britons abroad who had opted to vote in the UK had not received their postal ballots in time to be able to take part in the elections.

None of this was a surprise to New Europeans, the campaign group that exposed the vote denial scandal in 2014, when a similar problem occurred.

In the wake of a Select Committee inquiry and a damning report by the Electoral Commission, the Government promised that the registration process for EU citizens in the UK would be reformed to make it much easier for EU citizens to register.

Nothing was done, and by the time the Government decided to call the 2019 European election, it was too late for Electoral Registration officers to reach EU citizens and Britons abroad with the necessary paperwork to allow them to vote.

Research carried out by New Europeans since the election suggests that over 1 million EU citizens in the UK and Britons abroad were denied a vote.

The number is based on surveys of Electoral Registration Officers to find out how many citizens returned the additional paperwork required.

In the case of EU citizens, they have to complete a so-called UC1 form to declare that they will only vote in the UK. Britons abroad needed a postal vote.

In the London Borough of Hillingdon for example, where a grassroots voter registration campaign was organised to distribute the additional (UC1) forms, the return rate was 35%.

However, in most other local authority areas, the rates were between 20 and 25%. In Central Bedfordshire, the figure was as low as 9%.

EU law requires the government to make timely and adequate preparations to ensure that all eligible citizens can take part in the European elections.

Leaving the EU without a deal could not be done with parliament’s consent, nor was it likely that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement would ever make progress. From the moment the Attorney General gave his opinion on the Irish backstop in December 2018, the British government knew there was a distinct possibility that Brexit would be delayed.

They also knew that if Brexit was delayed, there would almost certainly have to be European elections in the UK.

Bob Posner, the Head of the UK’s Electoral Commission has acknowledged in a letter to the Guardian, that he made frequent requests to the Government to engage in contingency planning to ensure the full participation of all eligible voters should it be necessary to hold European elections.

Thanks to New Europeans’ experience with the 2014 European Parliament elections, it was able to raise the alarm. In a letter of 25 April to Government Minister David Lidington MP, the campaign group called for remedial measures to prevent the mass disenfranchisement of EU citizens, including making provision for the UC1 forms to be stocked at polling stations.

A cross-party group of MPs tabled a parliamentary motion calling for the same measures, and one MP, Mike Gapes even put down a written parliamentary question to David Lidington to find out when and whether he would respond to the new proposals. Joanna Cherry QC MP questioned Theresa May on the same issue at Prime Minister’s questions.

Despite all the opportunities it was presented with to avoid the exclusion of EU citizens from the election, the Conservative Government chose not to act.

To make matters worse, postal ballot forms were sent out to Britons abroad via a courier firm located in the Netherlands – many arrived too late to be used.

Many of the UCI forms went out to EU citizens in the UK by second class post with only 2-3 weeks to return them and at a time when there were two public holidays and school breaks to contend with.

This was a system designed to fail and it did so (again) spectacularly.

EU citizens and Britons abroad have suffered a serious injustice by virtue of the fact that they have been denied their right to vote in an important election. There is a distinct possibility that some will claim damages from the UK government.

There can also be little doubt that the exclusion of more than 1 million EU citizens ad Britons abroad being denied the vote had a material impact on the outcome of the election.

This was the first opportunity EU citizens in the UK have had since the referendum to express their views at the ballot box.

They were excluded by law from voting in the referendum. They have now also been excluded from voting in the European elections.

This has not happened because they did not have the right to vote. It has not happened through accident nor has it happened as the result of incompetence.

It has occurred because the Conservative Government deliberately failed to reform the registration system or to prepare in a timely and adequate way for the elections.

And it has happened because the Conservative Government refused to act to remedy the situation in the face of calls on it to do so from civil society campaigns and parliamentarians.

Alongside the legal actions that are being prepared, New Europeans has called for a public inquiry in the UK. Over 138,000 people have signed the petition​.

The campaign group has also instigated an investigation in the European Parliament by members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO), the Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) and the Brexit Steering Group with the help of Danuta Hübner MEP.

When Theresa May attends her last European Council meeting later this week, she may well find that she is asked about why so many EU citizens and Britons abroad were excluded from European elections in the UK.

At the last European Council, she was told in no uncertain terms that she could not prevent those calling for EU elections to take place in the UK if Brexit was delayed from having the right to take part in those elections, famously adding “because they are Europeans.”

We may well ask whether 1 million EU citizens and Britons abroad were subsequently denied their vote for the same reason?

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