Many EU citizens living in the UK have expressed their concern about their right to continue to live and work here when and if Brexit goes ahead. They may be less concerned about whether they will continue to have a right to vote in the UK after Brexit, but this is nevertheless one of the many issues which may come to affect EU residents over the next few months.
At present, citizens of other EU countries residing in the UK have a right to vote here for local elections, and also for elections to the devolved parliament and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This right was introduced because of the UK’s obligations under EU law. It is, however, a right which is now established in the UK’s own domestic legislation, in section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. That means that even after the UK leaves the EU, these voting rights for EU citizens resident in the UK will continue unless legislation is passed by the UK Parliament to remove those rights.
In my view, EU citizens who reside in this country should be able to continue to participate in civic life, and voting is one of the important founding blocks of citizenship. It may be that no one will suggest that they be deprived of that voice after Brexit. However, given that there are some politicians and media who are prepared to whip up hostility against EU residents in the UK, I certainly don’t think we can rule out the possibility that such an attempt to disenfranchise EU citizens will be made from some quarters.
If that were to happen, that would contribute further to the insecurity many EU citizens now have about their position within the UK. On the other hand, a firm declaration by the UK government that EU citizens will still have the same voting rights after Brexit as they do now would be a valuable gesture to show that they are valued as members of our society, who are able to take a full part in the civic life of our country. It should be borne in mind that these voting rights for EU residents in the UK does not include the right to vote for the UK Parliament itself. That is unless those EU residents are nationals of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta; because under our voting rules, Irish and Commonwealth citizens are allowed not just to vote, but also stand, in UK elections at all levels, including UK Parliamentary elections. I have no objection to that, indeed I welcome the fact that Irish and Commonwealth citizens have those rights; but it would be another hammer blow to EU nationals in our country who do reside here after Brexit if they were to lose their vote even if they have lived here for more than 40 years – whereas a newly arrived Commonwealth citizen could acquire the right to vote and stand in all UK elections within a few weeks of coming here.
So I urge the UK government to make a clear declaration, here and now, that it will continue to allow EU citizens residing in the UK the right to vote on the same basis as they can now. And I hope that the Scottish Government will do the same, as the Scottish Parliament will shortly have transferred to it the powers to decide who is eligible to vote for local elections in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament. I hope that such declarations would be supported on a cross-party basis, and even by Brexit-supporting MPs who want to see EU citizens making their contribution to our economy, our public services, and our communities.