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Nic O Nas Bez Nas: Why voting rights for EU Citizens should be on the political agenda

One common argument used in recent campaigns to lower the voting age to 16 is that Britain’s youngest citizens have the strongest interest in the long term decisions taken by government, yet currently have no say in the choices that are made. This argument has become particularly popular since the EU referendum, where very large age differences in choices emerged, which persisted into the next general election. Yet there is a far larger group of British residents with an equally strong stake in the consequences of EU referendum and since which is nearly completely disenfranchised in national elections: EU residents. It is both puzzling and concerning that the political rights of the several million citizens resident in Britain, including many who have made this country their long term home, have barely featured in debate before or after the EU referendum. It is about time that they did.

The general rights of EU citizens have, of course, been a major bone of contention throughout the Brexit negotiation process — with the British government (eventually) agreeing the principle of guaranteed rights, yet dragging out the process of defining how these would be administered and guaranteed after Brexit. EU citizens still have no idea what sort of paperwork they will need to fill in to secure their rights, or what information they will need to do it, as the government has not told them. Many are understandably reluctant to leave the country for fear it will jeopardise their ability to secure long term residence rights.

The situation might be different if MPs in Parliament had to worry about the votes of such frustrated EU residents — their large numbers and unusually even spread across the country would make them an important electorate in very many seats. Yet MPs can rest easy, because the vast majority of EU residents — including those here for decades — have no voting rights at all in British elections. They get no such rights as EU citizens and while they could secure such rights by taking out British citizenship, most have not done so.

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Share of major non-EU migrant populations with British citizenship (source: Annual Population Survey 2017)
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Share of major EU migrant populations with British citizenship (source Annual Population Survey 2017)

This behaviour sets EU migrants apart from every other significant migrant population in Britain, as the charts below indicate. More than forty per cent of every single large migrant group from outside the EU have British citizenship — in many cases large majorities have it. Migrants from many of these countries don’t even need British citizenship to vote in British general elections, as citizens of Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria have that right from the moment they take up residence in Britain. But even non-Commonwealth migrants have the potential to make themselves heard at general elections, as they tend to acquire citizenship at high rates.

The contrast with EU migrants is striking. Only one of the largest EU migrant communities has high rates of British citizenship — and that is a special case. Nearly two thirds of German born migrants to Britain have British citizenship — but many of these are the children of British servicemen who were serving on armed forces bases in Germany. After this the next highest figure is for Ireland — one in five Irish migrants has British citizenship. But Ireland is an exception in a different way, as all Irish citizens resident in Britain have the right to vote in British elections.

Citizenship rates for the rest of the EU migrant communities are very low — less than one in twenty of the Poles and Romanians living in Britain has British citizenship, around one in eight French born residents have it, and only around one in ten of the Italian, Spanish and Portugese born migrant communities. As a result, EU residents in Britain are practically voiceless in British general elections — the 900,000 strong Polish born community in Britain can muster fewer votes between them than the 55,000 residents who hail from Uganda.

The most likely reason for this from the point of view of the migrants themselves is fairly clear — EU residents came to Britain expecting their political and social rights to be guaranteed as part of Britain’s EU membership, which most assumed would be permanent. Migrants from other parts of the world face increasingly stringent rules and limits from the British Home Office, so have a strong incentive to acquire the security of British citizenship, despite the onerous paperwork and prohibitive (and rapidly escalating) costs involved.

Yet the logic from the point of view of governments is less clear. The wave of migration from new EU members in the mid 2000s created a large new population that was almost entirely disenfranchised. Yet there has been virtually no discussion about whether to address this, and if so, how. One consequence has been to skew the migration debate — EU migrants have no votes, but those who dislike their presence do, and have used them effectively. The guarantees offered by EU citizenship have, partly as a result, not turned out to be as secure as expected.

Yet even after Brexit, the idea of extending the franchise to the millions strong community of disenfranchised residents, whose fundamental rights are now in question attracts little attention. This seems both politically unwise and inconsistent with democratic norms. Giving EU citizens easier access to the ballot would be a valuable way to demonstrate goodwill to this large and important community, who politicians regularly claim they value and wish to support. Actions speak louder than words — and the ballot is a powerful way to hold politicians to their promises. A generous reform of political rights would also help to demonstrate goodwill to the EU itself, perhaps aiding the often fraught Brexit negotiations process. It would be good politics, too: EU citizens newly armed with the ballot would be more favourably inclined to the party which helped them gain a political voice.

Two obvious objections arise. Firstly, that the native British population would oppose extending the franchise in this way. While polling on this matter is sparse, what evidence we have suggests widespread support for the idea that long term residents should have full political rights, even among those with negative views about immigration in general. Nearly seventy per cent of respondents in the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey supported giving EU migrants the right to vote in British general elections after five years residence or less — including around sixty per cent of respondents who saw the impact of migration as negative. Only a small minority support the status quo, whereby even EU migrants who live here for decades are excluded from general elections.

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Source: British Social Attitudes 2013

A second objection is that the right to vote in general elections is inextricably bound up with national citizenship. Extending it to non-citizens would harmfully dilute the meaning of citizenship itself. There are two responses to this. Firstly, Britain already severed this link long ago. As I have already mentioned, citizens of Commonwealth countries and Ireland have the right to vote in general elections from the moment they arrive in Britain. This right has existed for many decades and has not proved controversial. Secondly, the reform need not take the form of granting the vote to non-citizens. Instead, access to citizenship itself could be made easier. This could be integrated with the registration processes the Home Office will anyway have to undertake for EU citizens. For example, EU citizens who register successfully with the Home Office as long term residents could be offered a straightforward path to British citizenship. This would overnight enable millions to have the option to join the political process — without obliging any to do so.

Offering the millions of EU migrants worrying about a newly uncertain future an easy route to secure the most basic of political rights — the right to vote in a general election — would be a powerful way for the British government to demonstrate to people who have made their home in Britain that they are welcome here in the long run. It is respects a basic democratic principle with wide public support: that all those with a stake in political decisions, regardless of where they originally came from, should have a voice in those decisions. It would be a bold, ambitious, and generous move — something an often bad tempered Brexit debate sorely needs. It is time for British politicians to respect an ancient Polish principle — “Nic o nas bez nas”: “Nothing about us, without us”.

Written by

University of Manchester politics professor. Immigration, prejudice, welfare state, public opinion, psephology.

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