After the Brexit Referendum (4) – Why UK-Resident EU Citizens Should Get the Vote
I’ve mentioned in my previous posts (Free Movement vs Migration; Free Movement vs Work Permit Schemes and the Mobile Classes vs the Rooted Classes) in this so far fortnightly series that EU citizens living in the UK should be fully enfranchised, that is, able to vote in General Elections as well as local and regional ones, not to mention in any referenda that may be held. In this post I want to approach the issue from a different angle.
To be crystal clear, my proposal is that anyone – EU citizen or not – who has legally lived and worked in the UK for a qualifying period of let’s say 3 years should be entitled to vote in all elections and any referenda, the same as UK and Commonwealth citizens. Essentially I agree with the “If you live here, you can vote here” position advocated by Jon Danzig, a man who clearly has more than the one blog.
Simple arithmetic suggests it may well be the case that the Brexit Referendum would not have been lost had EU citizens had the vote. But I believe the disenfranchisement has had much more insidious effects on our political discourse. As Danzig notes, we’ve been “talking about them as if they’re not in the room”, during the referendum campaign, even more so afterwards, but also for years before. Had politicians had to take UK resident EU citizens’ votes into account the tone of election campaigning over the years might well have been very different and we might never have had the Brexit referendum at all.
We’ve become accustomed to talking about EU citizens as separate from our “communities” – thereby undoing half a century of community relations effort, as I’ll explain another time – but exactly how can we justify denying them the vote?
Do EU citizens living in the UK have less of a stake in the country’s future than do UK citizens? Well, they are living here, paying their taxes and reliant on the rule of British law and the provision of state services exactly the same as UK citizens, though of course the details depend on everyone’s individual situation.
Are they here only temporarily? Well, they might be, but the 3 year qualifying period for a vote suggests at least some commitment to the UK. The majority will most likely stay considerably longer, not least because most of them are in work. On the other hand, some UK citizens may emigrate, maybe to retire abroad. We don’t deny categories of UK citizens the vote on the basis that they’re statistically more likely to move overseas. Even if EU citizens are more likely to leave the UK in the 5 years after a General Election, the number leaving will be only a fraction of those who have been here 3 years or more already, many of them for a decade or more, so the possibility hardly seems to justify denying all of them the vote. Besides, I could even argue that the EU citizens who leave the UK during the 5 years after a General Election in some sense “speak for” the EU citizens who may move to the UK after that election, not having had a vote.
So there doesn’t seem to be a rational justification for denying EU citizens a vote in General Elections (or referenda) on the basis that they have less stake in the outcome – or less responsibility for the decisions taken by the elected government, for example in terms of paying taxes.
What about other responsibilities? I’m thinking of the Colonel Blimps who “fought for this country” or rather whose parents or grandparents did. Well, many EU citizens could argue that their parents or grandparents fought on the same side in the same wars. More fundamentally, do we really want to grant the vote only to those who pass some test as to the contribution of previous generations?
OK, so what about future responsibilities for the defence of the realm? For the vast majority of us that simply comes down to paying the taxes that pay for professional armed forces, taxes that apply to EU migrant workers as much as to UK citizens. We don’t have conscription any more, but even if we did, would it even exclude the 18 year old children of EU citizens who’ve settled in the UK, children who may well be British citizens?
So there doesn’t seem to be a case for denying the vote to EU citizens living in the UK on the basis that they have less responsibility towards the country or have done less for it in the past.
What about ancestry, then? On one talk-show during the referendum campaign I heard a woman suggest that her family had been in the UK for 700 years and that this gave her greater rights than her interlocutor, who, as I recollect, could only claim a century or two. Well, I rather suspect everyone’s ancestry is more complex than that, judging by my own family history and that of those celebs who’ve explored theirs on some TV programme, the name of which escapes me just now. The practicality of DNA tests to measure Britishness would be undermined by the mongrel nature of our nation, as well as, perhaps, by the political need to ensure the Royal Family score highly. The blood-line idea is twaddle, isn’t it?
That leaves us with the idea of citizenship. But that is undermined on two counts:
First, EU citizens resident in the UK have never had to apply for UK citizenship. They have been treated equally with UK citizens under EU treaties (incorporated into UK law), for example, in their entitlement to grants and loans for higher education. They haven’t even had to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILTR) as some foreign residents need to.
And, as I mentioned in previous posts, people don’t change their citizenship unless they have to. Doing so may involve giving up some rights in their country of origin. People don’t necessarily make a decision to stay permanently – that is something that just happens. And they may reason that, depending on how the UK and other economies do, they might need to look for work in another EU country, Germany say, sometime in the future. It wouldn’t make sense applying for a UK passport. Besides, it costs around £1000 (for EU citizens) in the UK nowadays (an agenda item for the Brexit discussions, perhaps) and you have to do a stupid test, involving, I understand, the need to memorise the names of the Eastenders and Coronation Street pubs. If the only advantage is getting a vote, the price is too high for most people.
The right to participate in the democratic process is surely a right, not something you may have to pay for.
Second, and here’s the kicker, other UK residents born overseas do get a vote, even if they’ve been here less time than EU citizens. In general, non-EU citizens who want to reside in the UK either have to become UK citizens, giving them the right to vote, or apply for ILTR, which doesn’t confer the right to vote but is usually a necessary step to naturalisation.
So an EU citizen may have lived and worked in the UK for 10 years, the same as an American. But the American has had more incentive to naturalise, since doing so may be necessary to ensure continued residency, for example, if they wish to spend time outside the UK (which could result in ILTR status lapsing). Though, as I said at the outset, the American should have the right to vote even if they haven’t taken UK citizenship or even obtained ILTR.
And while we’re at it, why should one American living in the UK with ILTR status (or even without such status) not have a vote, while another who has become a UK citizen does have one? Especially if the American who has become a UK citizen has done so because they wished to spend a few years abroad before returning to the UK?!
It’s absurd that the right to participate in the UK’s democracy depends on the details of the process you have to follow to maintain residency rights.
The big inconsistency, though, is with Commonwealth and Irish citizens. When I first looked into this I thought Commonwealth citizens needed ILTR status in order to vote. I now realise when I read the relevant explanation more carefully that they only need to be in the UK legally:
“A qualifying Commonwealth citizen is someone who has leave to enter or remain in the UK, or does not require such leave.”
So, not only are Commonwealth-born UK residents more likely to have become UK citizens – in order to lock-in their right to reside in the UK – than are those from the EU who’ve come to live here under the EU’s free movement provisions and who haven’t needed to lock-in residency rights (at least up until the Brexit referendum), they don’t need to become a citizen to get a vote anyway.
It might be worth pointing out that the Commonwealth now includes some countries – Rwanda and Mozambique – that have no particular historic connection to the UK. They’ve merely joined the Commonwealth, perhaps out of dissatisfaction with their own former colonial power or simply to enhance their international profile or even just to create more competitive opportunities for their sportspeople! Of course, in terms of affecting the outcome of elections or referenda, the number of UK resident Rwandan and Mozambique citizens is insignificant. But it’s the principle that counts.
The franchise for UK general elections and national referenda is not only illogical but also discriminatory.
It should be amended forthwith on the principle of “If you live here, you can vote here”.
Furthermore, carelessness over this one detail may very well have cost us our EU membership, a disaster the scale of which only history will be able to judge, though perhaps they should place the portrait of David Cameron that, following tradition, will soon adorn the walls of No 10, right next to that of Lord North.