UK government moves to restrict EU citizens’ electoral rights

As anticipated in a law passed last year, the UK government published on Wednesday new rules that remove the automatic right for EU citizens to vote and stand as candidate in municipal elections. The change will not affect certain nationalities and EU citizens who moved to the UK before 31 December 2020, the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

New rules will concern “all levels of local election in England and other local polls or referendums”, as well as Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. Parallel measures will also apply to local elections in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Elections in Scotland and Wales are within the responsibility of the devolved administrations. Both continue to allow EU citizens to vote and to be candidates.

EU nationals cannot vote or stand as candidates in the UK general elections, unless are Irish, Cypriots or Maltese, or they also have British citizenship.

EU citizens who can still vote

New rules concern mainly EU citizens who moved to the UK after Brexit, but still allow several groups of EU nationals to participate in elections.

Cypriots and Maltese citizens can continue to vote and stand as candidates because their electoral rights derive from being part of the Commonwealth.

Irish citizens maintain their long-standing electoral rights, as these are separate from EU membership.

EU citizens who were living in the UK before 31 December 2020, the end of the post-Brexit transition period, will also be able to vote and stand as candidates, as the government has committed to “respect the rights of those citizens who made their home in the UK before EU exit”.

In addition, local electoral rights are granted to residents from EU countries which have signed a bilateral treaty with the UK. At present, these include Poland, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Changes from 2024

The draft policy paper published by the government is now open for consultation for 28 days.

New rules are expected to come into effect five days after the May polls in 2024, that is from 7th May 2024. EU nationals elected before that date will be able to complete their mandate, according to the government explanation.

New measures also establish a one-time process for the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) to review the eligibility of already registered EU citizens.

The loss of EU citizenship

Under EU citizenship rules, EU nationals who move to another country of the European Union have the automatic right to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections. When the UK left the EU, rights such as residence and access to social security were preserved under the withdrawal agreement. Voting rights, however, were not covered because British nationals lost EU citizenship and electoral rights are a matter for individual states.

The UK government has since allowed EU citizens to participate in local elections. In the meantime, the parliament passed the Elections Act 2022 introducing the changes. Now these changes are given effect with secondary legislation.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, Minister for Levelling Up Dehenna Davison said: “The automatic right that European citizens have to vote and stand in local elections in the UK granted solely as a consequence of our EU membership is not one which can continue. There has never been a general right for European nationals to vote in parliamentary elections – choosing the next UK Government is already rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historic links to our country, and this will not change.”

She added: “Going forward, the local voting rights of EU citizens living in the UK should be considered alongside the rights and interests of British citizens living abroad.”

The electoral rights of EU citizens who move to the UK will therefore depend on bilateral agreements with EU countries which grant similar rights to British citizens.

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo by James Claffey on Unsplash

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