EU migrants and voting rights in the upcoming referendum
EU migrants’ views
‘There is already an anti-EU bias involved in the process as it is rather obvious that any EU citizen residing in the UK would vote yes; otherwise they would be shooting themselves in the foot.’ commented Dr. Natalia Paszkiewicz from Poland on the fact that EU migrants in the UK don’t get a vote in the in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
As part of the Conservatives’ election manifesto, the referendum is due to take place by the end of 2017, in order to decide whether or not the UK should stay in or leave the EU. Shortly after his re-election in May this year, the Prime Minister is set to realise this promise. The plan is to follow the same voting eligibility rules as for a general election, which means citizens from most EU countries living in the UK will not have a say in this nationwide vote, neither will 16 and 17-year-old British citizens, unlike in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. Last September, 90,000 EU nationals registered to take part in the ballot on Scottish independence. British citizens who have been resident overseas for more than 15 years will also not be allowed to vote.
The practice not to allow migrants from European countries to vote in the EU referendum raises huge disappointment among EU migrants living in the UK. ‘I have been living in London for 12 years now, and I consider it deeply unfair for me not to have a say on my own fate.’ said Natalia, ‘Who knows what rights (if any) I will retain in the UK should Brits decide to withdraw from the European community.’
Another migrant from Italy, Giovanna*, who has been continuously living and working in the UK for the past eight years, thought it extraordinary being not allowed to have say in a referendum that might change her entitlements in this country, which made her feel ‘powerless and voiceless’. She regarded Britain as home and as such she did not expect to be treated as an unwanted guest. She said she believed that the value of her contribution should be fully acknowledged and her ability to enjoy equal rights to other members of this society should not be questioned.
The concern raised by some for the number of EU migrants in the UK is very different from the first referendum called by Harold Wilson in 1975 to decide Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community, during which time not immigration but emigration was the main topic. Currently the number of EU citizens living in the UK are 4% of the UK population, according to figures in population estimates by Office for National Statistics(ONS) which show that 2.5 million EU citizens were living in Britain in 2013. At the same time there are 2.2 million Britons living in the EU.
Most EU migrants in the UK have benefited from freedom of movement principle, which is a fundamental right in the EU. The concept allows any citizen of an EU country to move in and out of another member country with few limits. As a result, European people who choose to live in another member country do not necessarily have to change their nationality to reside in the UK. Yet for this upcoming referendum, nationality is one of the key qualifications for your voting power.
David Cameroon and his party expect the EU referendum to be a chance for Britons to have a say on the future of this country, which is also the future for young Britons under 18s, British nationals having lived overseas for more than 15 years, and EU residents living in the UK. Yet these voices will not be heard. For EU migrants who are directly affected by the vote, it is not taken into consideration that there should be any representation of their interests in the referendum.
‘It is ridiculous especially considering how many EU citizens there are in the UK and live here,’ complained a postgraduate student from Germany, who’s now studying and working in London, ‘I've been living here for 5 years now and could technically become a British citizen. However, I never considered it because I didn't think it was necessary since I am still European and have the same rights. But now I am being told that if I want to have a voice in this big decision I can no longer be just European but have to be British... It's not very democratic.’
Concerns over the referendum are not only about voting power but also of possible influences that could change the tune of the public discourse. As described by a Labour member as a ‘big gamble’ by David Cameroon, the referendum itself contains implications that produce huge uncertainty. Both the results of renegotiation with EU on Britain’s position or the consequences of the yes and no campaigns are unlikely to been seen until after the referendum results.
Prof. Christian Fuchs, as an Austrian citizen and a permanent resident in Britain, said he feared that ‘the campaigns before the Referendum will be full of nationalism and racism, racism directed especially against Eastern and Southern Europeans. If Britain leaves the European Convention on Human Rights and introduces a British Bill of Rights, then there is the danger that there will be two classes of people with different rights, which actually denies the universality of human rights and thereby cancels them. There are totalitarian potentials in such developments.’
Kia Rissanen from Finland, who’s been in Britain for 5 years, was also concerned about the referendum and the lasting impact it would have for not just the quality of life of migrants who have made their lives here, but also for the social cohesion and general tolerance that exists between the majority of cultures in this country. She thought it ‘deeply disturbing’ that ‘the referendum – a symbol of trust in the democratic institution – is being used as an opportunity by vested interests to vent their frustration at the current state of affairs on a convenient scapegoat: the migrant community.’ Others also worry that more migrants could become victims of ‘Brexit’ and no matter what the result is, through the referendum biased view towards migrants would have a chance of spreading to larger groups of people.
Though being disappointed at the interpretation of who can vote in this referendum and a latent political aftermath behind the scenes, Kia stayed optimistic about the future: ‘if history has demonstrated anything, it is that political decisions of this magnitude cannot be left to the “professionals,” but must be left to the people to decide and take responsibility for. It is a shame that the actual migrants themselves will not get a chance to vote, but I believe the British people will do the right thing. People are inherently rational beings, and the logical reasons for staying in the EU will surely triumph.’
*not her real name