Next week the European Parliament’s Petitions committee will be holding a hearing on the topic of British citizens who have lived elsewhere in the EU for over 15 years and subsequently lost their right to vote in UK national elections.
The "15 year rule" is set by the UK government and effects millions of British citizens who have lost the right to vote because they exercised their right to move freely around the EU under Freedom of Movement.
Multiple reports by the European Union have highlighted this disenfranchisement as being "at odds with the founding premise of EU citizenship" with the European Commission’s own 2013 EU Citizenship report stating "full participation of EU citizens in the democratic life of the EU at all levels is the very essence of Union Citizenship”. However, because the makeup of national elections is for each member state to decide, the Commission has been reluctant to take any further action.
Although this issue pre-dates Brexit, the referendum result has once again highlighted its importance. One of the legal justifications of the “15 year rule” made by the British government has been the belief that UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU “were less affected by laws adopted in the legislative procedures of the UK”. The EU referendum throws this entire logic into doubt as UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU are the group most directly impacted by the referendum result; yet they were unable to participate in it. As campaigners in the UK call for a People's Vote on the final Brexit deal, citizens' rights activists are actively calling for the inclusion of UK nationals living or working elsewhere in the EU in the electoral roll.
To add insult to injury, UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU could also lose the voting rights they already enjoy. Under current European law, UK citizens are able to vote in local and EU elections where they currently reside. Depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations this could all change significantly as UK nationals will no longer be classed as 'EU citizens' and legally protected as such. Many UK nationals are unable to vote in national elections where they currently live but could also lose the right to vote in a UK election, leaving them without any democratic representation at all. The draft Withdrawal Agreement is silent on the question of political rights for UK nationals in the rest of the EU and nationals from other EU countries in the UK, which poses major questions for those voting and standing for election in forthcoming local elections.
Jude Kirton-Darling, MEP for the North East of England and member of the Petitions Committee, said:
“The right to vote and participate in the democratic process goes to the very heart of both our British and European values. We are in danger of inadvertently disenfranchising millions of citizens as a result of Brexit – which is an affront to basic international civil and political rights and deeply undemocratic. This hearing is an opportunity to put more pressure on the UK government to change this outdated law and allow British citizens their most basic of rights - the right to vote”
“We live in a world where the movement of people and information is becoming more global by the day. The argument that someone who has lived outside of the UK for 15 years is no longer affected by, informed about, or motivated to participate in UK national elections no longer holds water. This rule may have been implemented under a Labour government but I believe it is now redundant and we should be doing everything we can to overturn it.”
The hearing will take place on the 24th of April in the European Parliament in Brussels.