Opinion: Give British EU migrants back their votes

We hear a lot these days about ‘EU migrants’: those strange and threatening people queuing at our doors to milk our famously generous welfare state – if you believe the dominant, fact-free, UKIP-inspired narrative, that is. But what about British EU migrants?

Figures recently uncovered by Lord Oakeshott show that there are 2.2 million British citizens living in other EU countries – almost the same number as other EU citizens resident in the UK. In many ways, this is not a surprise. We are a famously outward-looking country with centuries of globe-trotting experience. And who can blame those who decide to move south for a bit more sun?

EU free movement is a two-way street. It’s also one of the biggest benefits of our EU membership, both economically – being an inherent part of the single market – and in terms of personal freedom and opportunities. These are both things that we, as liberals, hold dear.

Given this commitment, shouldn’t we end the anomaly whereby the burgeoning numbers of British citizens using their EU right to free movement are effectively punished for doing so by losing their national right to vote? How can we justify the complete and total withdrawal of our own citizens’ democratic rights to vote in general elections simply because of an arbitrary period – currently 15 years – spent in another EU country? Now more than ever, Britain’s current rules for disenfranchising overseas voters seem an unfortunate anachronism.

Originally justified by the difficulty of maintaining contact with our sceptred isle from the far-flung reaches of the former empire where most British expats settled, the 15-year rule is simply no longer of our day and age. Almost half of the Brits abroad these days live in another EU country. Many continue to work, own property, pay taxes or draw pensions in the UK. And it’s as easy to stay plugged into British current affairs from Bordeaux as it is from Birmingham, whether listening to the Today programme, watching Nick v Nigel, or live-tweeting Question Time.

Saturday’s conference debate on political and constitutional reform gives us an opportunity to democratise our system, bringing it into line with the European mainstream and the modern world. In the EU, just four other countries out of 28 practise similar policies of disenfranchising law-abiding citizens, correctly identified as a stumbling block to free movement by the European Commission, which has asked them to reform their rules.

With an EU referendum looming, it’s time to give the vote back to our citizens who have perhaps the most at stake: British EU migrants.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Frank Booth 6th Mar '14 - 4:41pm

    Sorry, but why should people who don’t live in Britain be entitled to vote here? And which constituency would their votes apply to? I live in Cardiff West. Presumably I can’t vote in Twickenham because I don’t live there. So why should some guy who lives in Spain? More than that parties could try and redirect the votes of those living abroad into marginal constituencies where they really need them.

    Or could we have 20 new MPs representing those Brits living abroad? Half a million are using foodbanks, our public services face huge cuts and THIS is what Lib Dems are concerned about.

  • Frank Booth Of course I agree with you about the need to do something about those dependent on food banks etc. Time to recognise, among our left leaning parties, that we have allowed our economic system to be distorted to neoliberal trickle down ReaganThatchernomics. Time to reclaim a more dirigiste economic (preferably 70s economics) system. BUT, that does not forgive your rigid approach to voting for overseas citizens. In fact your curmudgeonly attitude makes me quite angry as a former overseas dweller (that was in the days before any enfranchisement of overseas citizens).

    In relation to Clegg v Farage, I think the current view in the media, that Farage “is a good debater, and will be difficult to beat” is entirely wrong, partly because the UKIP / phobe case is so weak anyway, and any halfway competent debater given a fair atmosphere without idiotic barracking, should be able to go away with an overall win. I have seen this in practice a number of times, and I have not seen any competent Lib Dem beaten in public by phobes. Quite often the audience comes away with a very different view to which they went in, and in some cases are happy to mock the entrenched and repetitive and nonsensical attitudes of the phobe. I think ideally, we would see Farage walk out, because he avoids debate, and tries to steer towards bluster, then as we have seen, he gets angry, with unpredictable results!

  • “Voting rights in national elections are a national responsibility, which is why the EU cannot legislate on the issue”

    Surely, it is a breach of their Human Rights. I am amazed nobody hasn’t already challenged this through the European Court of Human Rights.

  • @Frank Booth – so are you suggesting that all EU citizens should be able to vote in national elections in their EU member state of residence? That would make more sense to me.

  • Why not have one or more non-geographic constituencies representing “Britons Abroad”?

  • David – 1 Which is, of course, the way the French do it (and I think the Americans and the Aussies). It is quite instructive working overseas when there is an Australian election, with their compulsory voting, and they all have to be there, getting worried they won’t register their votes at the correct time, and incur a hefty fine!!

  • Shirley Campbell 6th Mar '14 - 7:53pm

    EU free movement is a two-way street.

    Love these debates, which is why I subscribe to Lib Dem voice.

  • @Tim13 – Just to say that the Americans don’t have seats in Congress for Americans living overseas. You might be thinking of delegates, who are elected to the US House of Representatives but who cannot vote, who sit for US territories (places like American Samoa) and also for Washington, D.C.

    I think there is something to recommend those global constituencies, esp as the British are a nationality that scatters itself across the globe, but just think of how the tabloids would cover the cost of their flights. I also like the idea of allowing EU nationals to vote in the EU Member State in which they live regardless of their nationality, but I doubt that is politically possible, at least in the current climate of how many British people view foreigners living amongst them.

    I think Giles’s proposal is the best realistic solution for the problem he identifies.

  • Frank Booth 6th Mar '14 - 9:07pm

    Chris – can’t they do so already?

    Who exactly would be entitled to vote in UK elections who wasn’t living here? Anyone with a British passport? A British citizen? Anyone who was born here? The modern world gives people a remarkable freedom to travel. However sometimes I get the feeling these international dwellers are a bit spoilt. They think everything should be built to suit them. Very often they’re elitists who think it’s only natural that people like them should be able to vote in more than one country.

  • Sorry but I disagree. Other EU nationals who are resident in the UK can, quite rightly, register to vote here. UK citizens living overseas should do likewise. We vote for representatives for our constituencies. My view is that 15 years is too long, if you are a permanent resident abroad then why should you decide what happens to those of us who live here.

  • Steve Way As I remember it, 15 years was set to reflect the idea that that might give a cut-off to “permanent” residence somewhere else (yes, Giles, arbitrary in a way). Thanks Stuart for that info. I know that Americans overseas do vote in Congressional elections, and perhaps that is within their home precinct?

  • @Tim13 – Americans resident overseas do indeed keep their right to vote without a time limit, in just the way Giles suggests in his piece. Their vote is in the district in which they last voted, just as I think Brits get to vote in their old constituency. Some states even allow American citizens who have never lived in the United States (e.g. babies born to Americans resident overseas) to vote in the district in which a parent once lived… maybe that’s taking it too far!

  • Richard Harris 7th Mar '14 - 12:01am

    Whats the problem? People should participate in the politics of where they reside, not where they have a pension fund.

  • “Chris – can’t they do so already?”

    They can register to vote, but can’t vote in Westminster elections.

  • If we do get a referendum on our membership of the EU, can non-British residents of the UK vote in the referendum?

    If they can, could we organise that we invite as many people to come and stay in the UK for the duration of the voting period. If each Lib Dem member could be a host to four or five eastern Europeans for that time, using the spare rooms in our houses to accommodate them, then we would have about an additional 200,000 votes for us to stay in the EU.

  • Mick Taylor 7th Mar '14 - 10:06am

    Let’s be clear. People from outside the UK but from within the EU can register to vote in local and EU elections. They can’t vote in UK Parliamentary elections. This rule applies across the EU, so UK migrants living in other EU countries can only not vote in their national parliamentary elections.

  • Sandy Leslie 7th Mar '14 - 10:47am

    My wife is french. we live in Scotland. Françoise is able to vote for the Scottish Parliament , local elections, as well as the coming referendum,and she has chosen to vote here for the European elections . She also has the right to vote in French elections for the president, assembly and the local elections .

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 7th Mar '14 - 12:33pm

    Stuart and Tim,

    I was involved in voter registration for the 2000 US Presidential election, and I remember the then Chair of Democrats Abroad Ireland telling me that, in Kilkenny, an old man in his late-eighties approached their stall to register. He’d lived in Ireland for more than sixty years but was still eligible.

    Of course, the flip side is that US citizens living abroad are still obliged to file tax returns, as US tax law doesn’t appear to have much truck with the notion of non-residency…

  • David White 7th Mar '14 - 1:18pm

    Have I misunderstood or do Brits abroad no longer have the right to vote in UK elections? Through the 1970s, I lived in a couple of African countries. and would have liked to have been able to vote in the EC in/out referendum – and other elections – but could not do so.

    However, I thought that cunning, old Denis Thatcher persuaded his missus that the UK franchise should be extended to Brits living abroad – cos all those escapers living on the Costa del Sol would be certain to vote Tory. Wasn’t overseas voting for British expats introduced? I thought, as a result of DT’s intervention, it was. If so, has that franchise been removed, subsequently?

    I’m sorry to be Confused, Bewildered and Elderly of Kingston-Upon-Hull (formerly of the parish of Abbots Langley) but will somebody please explain the situation to me – slowly and clearly?

    As (almost) an afterthought, I can see no reason why anybody who has deserted the UK, for any purpose, should be allowed to vote here, in any election.

  • Malcolm Todd 7th Mar '14 - 1:43pm

    David White
    The law currently is that UK citizens who cease to be residents retain the right to vote in parliamentary elections in their old constituency for up to 15 years. (It was 20 years for a while, but the last government reduced it to 15.) After that, you lose that right; though I believe all EU citizens (including Britons abroad) are entitled to vote in European elections in the country where they are resident, and I think it is normal (as in the UK) that EU citizens can also vote in local elections in their place of residence.
    If you were too young to register when you left the UK, you can still register as an overseas voter so long as your parent or guardian was registered to vote in the UK, providing you left the UK no more than 15 years ago.

  • Sandy Leslie 7th Mar '14 - 1:51pm

    I should have mentioned that my wife pays her taxes in the Uk

  • David White
    Voting is a right. Many countries now give their citizens living overseas the right to vote in national elections. It is seem as being fully democratic.

  • Malcolm Todd 7th Mar '14 - 4:35pm

    It’s important to remember that you do retain the right to vote in parliamentary elections for 15 years after leaving the country. Does someone who has settled abroad for that length of time really have a natural right to continue to take part in our decisions? My brother has lived in Germany for over 20 years and has such has forfeited his right to vote in general elections here. I don’t think that’s unreasonable; any more than I think that I should have a vote in the coming Scottish referendum just because I grew up there, as I have chosen to live in England for the last 30 years.
    The fact that one has lost one right because of choosing to exercise another right doesn’t seem to me fundamentally improper: the important point is that it is the result of a free choice.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Mar '14 - 6:47pm

    Steve Way:

    @ Steve Way: “Other EU nationals who are resident in the UK can, quite rightly, register to vote here.”

    I might agree if this were true. But it is not.

    EU nationals living here have a legal duty to register to vote. This gives them voting rights automatically in local elections only. They have no vote in national elections. If they want to vote in EU elections here rather than in their home country they then have to fill out a separate form.

  • Malcolm Todd
    Yes Why should someone have to return to Britian and be unemployed just to get their voting rights back?
    The name old Blighty is a really apt name The country needs reform so that real job opportunities are available so it won’t be necessary to go and find work overseas..

  • Giles Goodall 8th Mar '14 - 12:36pm

    Malcolm Todd: The point is that people like your brother lose their right to vote in any national elections at all, as there is no corresponding right in the country of residence (unlike for local and European elections). Do you think it’s right that he has no voice over national politics anywhere? And what about an EU referendum, when he could see his right to reside in Germany revoked if we left the EU, yet have no voice in that decision?

  • Nick Fraser 8th Mar '14 - 12:51pm

    I would favour treaty change to give EU citizens the right to vote in national elections where they actually reside. We are in a ludicrous position where a Brit resident in e.g. Germany, perhaps paying tax in that country for decades has little say in how that tax is spent as they never gain a right to a vote in national parliamentary elections . This seems to be fundamentally inconsistent with the idea of free movement of citizens and the consistent application of their rights across the 28 countries that the EU champions (an Irish citizen living in London is entitled to a Westminster vote, but a Polish citizen permanently resident in London is not). Effectively, it is taxation without representation. A sensible move would be for citizens reaching a threshold period of residency, e.g. 5 years, be given the right to nominate in which country they wish to be registered for national elections, with the proviso that they only be entitled to a national vote in one member state.

  • jedibeeftrix 8th Mar '14 - 12:55pm

    “Do you think it’s right that he has no voice over national politics anywhere? ”

    The answer is obvious in that case, he should naturalise himself into his new adopted nation, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

    At such point as the EU becomes a federal state then fine, restrictions on voting in national elections become ludicrous, for you have already accepted a collective destiny.

    Britain is not yet in this position. 😉

  • All those who are legally resident in the country should have the right to vote since the decisions of the government will affect them directly. Those who are not resident in the country should not. I agree that arbitrary periods of time should not be relevant. Irish citizens who live in the UK have the right to vote here, I don’t see why that should be different for any other EU country.

    I know that some countries have a different attitude to this issue but I don’t see that it matters frankly. The UK Government is for those that live in the UK.

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Mar '14 - 11:29pm

    What Jedi said. Frankly, I think who gets to vote in German national elections is a matter for Germany. The fact that they don’t allow long-term residents to vote for their parliament isn’t a reason why we should be obliged to give those residents a vote in elections here, where they don’t live.
    Does anyone think I should have a vote in the Scottish referendum? Or have a reason why it’s different?

  • I should think that if you owned property in Scotland, or paid taxes to any local authority in Scotland, it *would* make sense to have a vote in the Scottish referendum, or vote for a Member of the Scottish Parliament, even if you aren’t currently resident there — because you have a direct interest in the resulting political and policy changes. I also think it’s profoundly undemocratic to create a class of “voteless persons.”

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Mar '14 - 1:52pm

    Fascinating. No, I don’t own property in Scotland, so I guess you agree that I don’t have a right to vote there. But if, say, I were to acquire a holiday home in Aviemore then you think I should have a vote there? Presumably, that would be true whether or not I was born there.
    What about foreign citizens who own property in the UK? Should they be allowed to vote here?
    Or is it somehow the combination of birth and property ownership that confers this right on non-residents? I struggle to see how any of this can be described as “democratic” in any normally accepted sense of the word. I certainly don’t see that it is ethically superior to the combination of citizenship and residence (including recent residence) that we actually use to determine the right to vote.

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