EU citizens to maintain voting rights in UK, government says

EU citizens who were living in the UK before 31 December 2020 will maintain the right to vote and stand as candidates in local elections, the British government has said.

Within the European Union, EU citizens have the right to take part in local elections wherever they live. However, this topic was not covered in the UK withdrawal agreement and, although Europeans were allowed to vote in May’s elections, their future participation remained uncertain.

In a statement made on June 17th, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution Chloe Smith said the government intends to resolve the matter in the forthcoming elections bill.

The bill will also ensure that British citizens overseas can vote for life in the UK. At present they are barred from voting if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.

The government will propose that EU citizens who have been living in the UK before the end of the Brexit transition period maintain “their local voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland, provided they retain lawful immigration status,” minister Smith said.

Under laws passed by the devolved administrations, EU citizens can already vote in Scotland (once they have acquired settled status) and Wales, including in the election of the Scottish and the Welsh parliaments.

EU citizens elected before new measures come into force will be able to serve their full term, the minister also confirmed.

After the UK withdrawal from the European Union, some 5 million EU citizens, and family members, have applied for the new post-Brexit residence status.

Voter turnout for this group is usually low. A 2016 report by the Electoral Commission found that only 53% of EU citizens had registered to vote, compared to 63% of Commonwealth citizens and 86% of British and Irish citizens.

Unlike Commonwealth and Irish citizens, however, EU nationals cannot vote in general elections, noted the3million, a group defending the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and this could be a factor for the limited interest. The3million has recently established an EU Councillor’s Network to promote better representation.

At the EU level, there are growing calls to extend voting right to regional and nationals elections. The European Commission is expected to propose changes to current rules later this year.

Different rules for EU citizens arriving after 1 January 2021

For EU citizens who have arrived in the UK after January 1st 2021 the situation will be different. They will have local electoral rights in England and Northern Ireland only if there is a bilateral agreement between the UK and their country.

The government has so far signed agreements with Spain, Luxembourg, Portugal and Poland and “will continue to invite EU member states which are interested” to enter such treaties, Ms Smith said.

Irish citizens will not be affected by these changes, as they had voting rights in the UK before the country joined the EU. Cypriot and Maltese citizens have full voting rights in the UK because they are members of the Commonwealth.

“Now that the UK has left the EU, and with the ending of free movement and introduction of the new points-based immigration system… there should not be a continued, automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen,” Ms Smith added. “The right to vote in parliamentary elections and choose the next UK government is already rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historic links to our country,” she said.

“Should any EU citizen wish to gain full rights to participate in local and national elections, they may apply for British citizenship,” the minister continued. Some EU citizens, however, will not be able to naturalise as British as not all EU countries allow dual nationality.

Alexandra Bulat, a Romanian-British campaigner at the3million who was elected in May in Cambridgeshire County Council, said on Twitter the UK government approach raises questions. “The only genuinely inclusive model is a residency based model for local voting rights for all residents regardless of nationality and when they arrived in the UK,” she argued.

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo by Aurore Martignoni © European Union, 2021

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