The UK and Europe

The lost votes in the UK-EU referendum

Denis MacShane / Jan 2016

Cartoon by Peter Schrank


You might call it the luck of the Irish or the curse of the Euro-Brits. David Cameron’s Brexit referendum – whenever it is held – will forbid hundreds of thousands of true-born Englishmen and women, as well as Scots and Welsh holders of UK passports from voting on their fate while allowing 400,000 Irish passport holders living in the UK to help decide the fate of Brits living across the Channel.

Moreover EU citizens who do not hold British passports can vote if they come from Cyprus or Malta as part of the contingent of 1.6 million Commonwealth but not British citizens who live in the UK and who have the right to vote in parliamentary and local elections.

So a vote by Irishmen and women or a vote by Canadian, Australian or Indian passport holders temporarily resident in Britain may make the difference between staying in or leaving Europe, if the result is narrow either way.

The real losers are the 2 million British citizens who live and work in Europe including an estimated 750,00 in Spain.  They are the most likely to be directly affected by a vote in favour of Brexit as British withdrawal from the EU would mean the loss of automatic residence rights plus access to all local amenities on a non-discriminatory  basis along with local citizens of the host country.

Jean Claude Piris, who served for 22 years as the European Council’s chief lawyer and is acknowledged as the best brain on EU law states: “At the date of Brexit British nationals would lose their EU citizenship. It is not legally possible to build a theory according to which British nationals would keep as ‘acquired rights’ some of the rights attached to EU citizenship.’

As EU law expert, Helena Wray, notes “The price (of a Brexit vote) will be the loss of innumerable business, educational and cultural opportunities as movement from Europe becomes more difficult and likely increased difficulties for UK citizens who may no longer take for granted their own privileged access to Europe for work, education, holidays or retirement.”

Unlike the United States or France  and most democracies which expect their expat citizens to remain active in deciding the leadership and policy of their nations Britain puts every difficulty in the way of allowing their own citizens to exercise democratic rights to vote.

British citizens lose all their democratic rights to vote once they have spent 20 years outside the UK. Even within that 20 year period the British citizen is expected to remain registered in a constituency and there are increasing difficulties being placed in the way of registering to vote.

But the Brexit referendum is completely different. It is not about electing an MP or councillor. It is single national ballot paper with a simple Yes or No vote. It should be perfectly possible for the Government to allow every British citizen registered at a consulate in Europe or further abroad to come and get a ballot paper

It is bizarre that Commonwealth passport holders who are not British can vote in the referendum but not British citizens especially those living in Europe who will lose.


Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

January 2016

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