UPDATE: Since writing the below report, the legal challenge has been lost, meaning that long-term expats won’t be able to vote in the June 23rd Referendum.
UK expats could be one of the groups most affected by the result of the UK’s EU membership referendum. In the event of a ‘remain’ victory, little may change. But if the UK chooses to ‘Brexit’, Britons living in the EU could see their circumstances changing dramatically.
Yet for many UK expats, their future is in the hands of others. UK citizens who have been living abroad for fifteen years or more lose the right to vote. This means that a huge decision that could significantly affect their future will be decided by people who aren’t in their situation.
Naturally, many expats are angry by this disenfranchisement. There is a glimmer of hope, however, as two Britons have launched a legal challenge to force the government to allow them a vote.
As it stands, free movement allows you to live and work anywhere in the European Union without the need for a visa. An estimated 2 million Britons enjoy this right at the moment. No one is currently certain what will happen to these expat benefits in the event of a ‘Brexit’. Britain Stronger in Europe, the lead campaign to remain a part of the EU, claims it is impossible to guarantee that the rights of British expats will be upheld.
The ‘leave’ campaign claim that there is no reason why they should be changed, although these rights are part of the free movement agreement; an agreement ‘Leave’ is firmly against, wanting to abandon it in order to be able to more tightly control immigration to the UK.
Healthcare and pension provisions could also be revised in the event of a ‘Brexit’.
In most cases, there’s an argument for denying people who live abroad the vote. If they have lived in another country for more than 15 years, they have not been governed or particularly impacted by UK politics for some time. Domestic changes don’t have an influence on their lives, so it would be unfair for those who live in the UK to have decisions such as which political party is in government influenced by people the decision wouldn’t affect.
Using the same logic, it is therefore arguably unfair that expats don’t get a vote in the referendum. They will be impacted by the consequences more than most and could see a huge change in their lifestyle. Therefore, many expats argue, they should get a say in the decision that will directly affect them.
According to Harry Shindler, a war veteran, and Jacquelyn MacLennan, a British lawyer, the ‘15 year rule’ impinges upon their rights under EU law. Shindler has lived in Italy since 1982, while MacLennan has been resident in Belgium since 1987. According to Shindler, a victory for the ‘leave’ campaign ‘would have very serious repercussions for all expats and their families here. I came [to Italy] in 1982 when you had to have a permit from the police to stay here. All that would come back. We would be immigrants here.’
Therefore, the pair have launched a legal challenge to secure the right to vote in the referendum.
The pair’s representative, Andrew O’Neill QC, has argued that not allowing expats like Shindler and MacLennan to vote places them ‘on the horns of an impossible dilemma’. In order to vote against a ‘Brexit’ and protect their right to live abroad, they would have to move back to the UK to regain their right to vote. O’Neill commented that, ‘It’s not they have left or given up on the UK, but every day of their daily lives they are relying on the fact of their British citizenship and membership of the UK in the EU.’
In attempting to justify the decision, O’Neill stated that, ‘we look in vain in the record before Parliament for why. What is the legitimate aim they seek to achieve by imposing that restriction? There is absolutely no reason why their vote should be taken away.’
MacLennen added that ‘I think we have strong arguments and I hope they will prevail.’
The case, brought before the High Court, could see hundreds of thousands of expats being given the right vote. The government currently has no exact figure for the number of UK expats in Europe who have lived there for over fifteen years.
The move could have a significant impact upon the referendum vote. Considering expats are some of the Britons most obviously enjoying the benefits of EU membership, it is highly likely that many of them will support the ‘Remain’ campaign. If several hundred thousand expats are suddenly able to vote, that could significantly boost the chances of victory for the pro-EU camp.
However, the government argues that, if the case succeeds it could cause the referendum to be postponed in order to allow time to pass the legislation and enable newly qualified expats to register to vote.
According to written arguments from government representative James Eadie QC, ‘in large part as a result of delay by the Claimants … it would be impossible for the necessary steps to be taken to implement a finding in their favour without calling into question the date of the EU referendum. Typically, such changes require a lengthy process of development, testing and delivery.’
However, lawyer for Shindler and MacLennan, Richard Stein, argued that ‘We believe that the Government has the time now to amend the franchise and empower the many expats who have lived outside the UK for over 15 years who want to vote on decisions which will have a very real impact on their lives. This legal action should not delay the referendum. The Government should instead stand by its promises and give a ‘vote for life’ to British citizens.’
Stein was referring to an election promise made by the Conservatives to give UK expats the right to vote regardless of how long they had been resident outside of the country. A spokeswoman for the Cabinet office claimed that the government still intends to deliver upon their pledge.
Whether the High Court will rule in favour of expats and accelerate plans to make the promise a reality in time for the referendum remains to be seen.
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