“Two-tier system”: voting rights of EU citizens in UK local elections

The local elections of 2 May 2024 will mark another significant moment in the life of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, as they will be the last ones in which all of them will be able to participate.

The UK has so far guaranteed the electoral rights in municipal elections for EU citizens, even though after Brexit they lost the automatic eligibility to vote and stand as candidates deriving from EU rules.

Under a new law coming into effect after the May elections, however, only some EU citizens will maintain their electoral rights, depending on when they arrived in the UK and where they are from.

What is changing

Under EU citizenship rules, all EU nationals who move to another European Union country have the automatic right to vote and run for office in local elections.

By leaving the EU, British nationals lost EU citizenship and, as electoral rules are made at a national level, these rights were not protected under the EU-UK withdrawal agreement.

Instead, the UK government has passed a new law which protects such rights for some categories and is negotiating bilateral deals with individual EU countries.

In February, Denmark was the fifth EU member state to sign a reciprocal voting rights agreement with the UK to allow citizens to continue to vote and stand in local elections. Similar treaties have been signed with Poland, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal, and more countries may follow.

May 2024 elections

There is still one chance for all to vote, however. At the local elections of Thursday 2 May 2024, all EU citizens who are resident in the UK remain eligible to vote and stand for office.

The vote concerns councils and mayors in England, including the election of the Mayors of London, Manchester and Liverpool. EU citizens elected on this occasion will be able to complete their mandate, regardless of their future status, the government has guaranteed.

Citizens’ rights groups are encouraging people to seize the chance and participate. As part of the #GetOuttheVote campaign by group New Europeans, actor Kate Willoughby has played the role of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in Westminster, urging all EU citizens in the UK to use their vote in the upcoming election, before the “two-tier system” takes effect.

To be able to vote, it is necessary to register by Tuesday 16 April. To apply for a postal vote, the deadline is 5pm on Wednesday 17 April.

Actor, writer Kate Willoughby as Emily Wilding Davison during a campaign day for #LoveYourVote, in London, January 31, 2024. Photo credit: Isabel Infantes.
After the May 2024 elections

What happens next? Under a new law passed last year and coming into effect on 7 May, only the following groups of EU citizens will maintain their electoral rights in local elections:

  • EU citizens who moved to the UK by 31 December 2020, the end of the post-Brexit transition period, “if they retain a lawful immigration status”
  • EU citizens from countries that have signed a bilateral treaty with the UK – so far Denmark, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain
  • Cypriot and Maltese citizens, because they are part of the Commonwealth
  • Irish citizens, because their electoral rights in the UK are long-standing and separate from EU membership.

Scotland and Wales will continue to allow all EU citizens to vote and be candidates in the election of their devolved administrations.

The UK government estimates around 2 million EU citizens will be verified and remain on the electoral register, while around 160,000 will be removed (but they will be contacted beforehand).

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

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Top photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash; photo in article by Isabel Infantes

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