With the exception of individuals from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, non-British EU nationals living in the UK will not be permitted to vote in the country’s referendum on EU membership. These eligibility rules are similar to the rules applying to the 2015 UK general election. Veerle Heyvaert writes that although it would have been counter-productive for the ‘remain’ campaign to have relied on the support of foreign citizens in the referendum, more attention should nevertheless be paid to the potential impact of a ‘leave’ vote on those EU nationals currently residing in the UK.
Zac Goldsmith would like me to vote for him in the London mayoral elections, held in May of this year. One month later, he plans to vote in favour of Brexit, which will deprive me of the right to vote in any future mayoral elections. It seems he is out to get my vote in more ways than one.
As a Belgian national and long-term UK resident, my right to vote in municipal elections comes by virtue of my status as an EU citizen. It is guaranteed in Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). That same provision entitles me to stand as a candidate in local elections, and to cast my vote and stand as candidate in elections to the European Parliament.
Admittedly, these political rights fall considerably short of the full package that British nationals enjoy. The most prominent limitation is that I am not allowed to vote in national elections. The most ironic one, arguably, is that I am not allowed to vote in the EU referendum. Yet the limited nature of my political rights as an EU citizen does not make them any less meaningful to me.
This is all the more so since, over 18 years, my political ties with Belgium have weakened and those with the UK, and London particularly, have grown stronger. London is where I live, where my children were born and raised, where I pay my taxes, where I own a home and pay a mortgage. After 23 June, if the Out campaign is victorious, I will cease to exist as a citizen. So will nearly three million EU nationals who live in the UK (data from The Migration Observatory at Oxford University).
The most rattling aspect of this is that the impending demise of the political rights of millions of UK residents is treated as a complete non-issue. It was not a visible factor in the government’s decision that only UK nationals should get a vote in the EU referendum. Of course, it is not a rare event for majoritarian decisions to harm the interests of a minority. Neither is it necessarily unjust. However, it is very rare for a minority to be wholly excluded from decisions that have a differentiated and negative impact on their interests.
When the interests at stake concern the preservation of fundamental political rights, we are looking at a phenomenon that is not only rare, but genuinely aberrant in a modern, rights-based and democratic society. The respect of individual rights requires as a bare minimum that any limitation of such rights is duly justified in the public interest. Conversely, any public decision that risks to infringe fundamental rights should at the very least take this consequence into account and seek to minimise or mitigate the loss of rights. What it should emphatically not do, is disregard the issue entirely.
The aim of these comments is not to call for the terms of reference for the EU referendum to be renegotiated. At this stage in the process, any such attempt would be categorically doomed. Moreover, frustrating though it is to watch from the sidelines, the harsh truth is that the involvement of non-UK nationals in the referendum might do more harm than good. A victory for the ‘In’ camp by anything less than a landslide could easily be denounced as the result of a bloc ‘migrant vote’ and taken as further damning evidence of the extent to which the EU has crippled UK sovereignty.
But the exclusionary nature of the EU referendum does impart two key cautionary messages. The first is that we should be alert to how quickly and easily disregard happens. In the debate on the referendum, the potential and differentiated impact of an ‘Out’ vote on close to three million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are long-term UK residents and taxpayers, has barely been explored, let alone discussed. This is less than we should expect from a society that, whether in or out of the EU, prides itself on being inclusive and fair-minded.
Secondly, the loss of political rights for all UK-resident EU citizens undermines the assumption that Brexit will only affect new and recent entrants into the UK, whereas the status of long-term residents is secure. To be sure, there are no credible forced mass-repatriation schemes in the offing; it would be an injustice to accuse even staunch Eurosceptics of hatching such plans. By the same token, the prospect of a set of draconian laws designed to strip UK-resident EU citizens of all their work-related and social rights as soon as the UK throws off its EU fetters, is remote.
However, it does not take an eviction notice to make guests feel unwelcome. The loss of EU status may create the need for work permits, visas, and all the bureaucracy and expense they entail. Moreover, in the absence of EU scrutiny, UK policy makers are unlikely to remain as attuned to equal treatment considerations as they are now. What EU citizens are most at risk of is not the hammerblow of direct discrimination, but the slow grind of disregard.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Veerle Heyvaert – LSE
Veerle Heyvaert is an Associate Professor (Reader) in the Law Department at LSE.
There is another set of EU individuals and that is those married to British nationals but not resident in the UK, but with freedom of movement to the UK without limits at the moment. I am a British Citizen and have businesses in the UK and in Europe and spend time shared between these locations. My wife is a non-UK EU citizen and accompanies me as we move about Europe and the UK with multiple homes. However if Britain exits the EU and the requirements for a long term visa remain the same where you have to reside in the UK for long periods of time then we will no longer be able to have this lifestyle. At the moment it doesn’t matter for how long we stay in any particular European country (including the UK). obviously we could have a long term visitor visa for my wife, but this doesn’t allow her to work and she works as my PA and Administrator in the business at the moment.
There sill be no one making anyone feel unwelcome, legally non UK citizens will simply be given leave to remain. I have a friend from Barbados who has lived in the UK since the 1950’s & has never taken UK nationality. The only people that give him any grief are Europeans, it is easier for him to go on holiday to America than put up with the hassle of a week in Spain. If you played Cricket you would meet people of all nations & faiths who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the origin of someone or their family because they all speak English. An issue I have is going into a pub, filling station or pub in my own country & the staff are speaking amongst themselves in a foreign language, those people we do notice.
If you worked in a pub in Spain with other British members of staff (as many UK nationals do), you would talk to them in English. It is not done to offend anybody, it’s just the way people communicate! Why would anyone be offended by this is beyond me.
Maybe they are Welsh, Chinese or Pakistani. Pulling out of the EU will make no difference to hearing foreign languages in the UK.
And we can all agree that Welsh is not a foreign language
The meaning of citizenship is that some have it, the rest does not have it, otherwise what would be the point of being a citizen?
Long-term UK residents who wish to vote in elections and referenda should simply apply for UK citizenship, following the procedures dictated by UK law. I cannot see how long term residents who do not wish to become citizens are deprived of any right in this case.
All however are citizens of the EU. Thus, the author is a citizen of the EU, living in an EU country, albeit not a British citizen. However, do not overlook British citizens living in other EU countries. Those, like myself, living outside the UK (in Germany now) over 15 years (in total close to 2 million people) have been deprived of our rights to vote in the UK referendum even though we are the most affected parties. But we are not allowed to vote in German federal elections either. Thus we are (for now at least) EU citizens without the right to vote.
When Scotland had a referendum to leave the Union, the people of Wales and England and Northern Ireland did NOT have a right to vote even though we would have been directly affected by a positive ‘out’ vote. Same is same I think. Also, althought I lived in the UK for 30 years, I was never allowed to vote on anything being American until I finally opted to get British citizenship. I will be voting ‘Out of the EU’ I find it appalling how Britain has pregressively given away its ability to govern itself.
My UK of GB and NI passport indicates that I have the nationality of ‘British Citizen’. I am also a citizen of the EU, which confers a number of rights (see ec.europa.eu/justice/citizen/index_en.htm) not least to ‘move and reside freely within the EU’. If the UK leaves the EU would this be an illegal act by the UK by depriving me of a rights I currently enjoy?
Further, would it make sense for the EU as a legal entity to offer citizenship by application to all those in the UK minded to apply if the UK does leave the EU. I for one would apply for citizenship of any of the current members of the EU but cannot satisfy their individual requirements. However, I have been a citizen of the EU for a number of years (Treaty of the Functioning of the EU). This would would allow me to be a citizen in the eyes of the EU and a non-citizen in the eyes of the UK. Problem solved?
You cannot be a citizen of the EU, since it is not a state (whatever Mr Farage might say). Sorry
I completely agree with the article. The whole debate is purely about the views (and prejudices) of a certain segment of the population, who by and large are completely unaffected by the outcome. However, the politicians, the media and these voters seem completely unconcerned about the rights and lives of several million EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU. In any other debate, this would be considered deeply undemocratic and downright unfair. For some reason, it’s OK not to give any thought to protecting EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU. The best they can muster is “oh, it’ll be OK”. Really? Shall trust my life and whole future to “oh, it’ll be OK”. If the out camp wins I anticipate thousands of legal challenges to any decision that affects negatively the EU / UK citizens.