This is the first in a series of content for the3million, the largest organisation of EU27 citizens in the UK campaigning to protect citizens rights post-Brexit.
You may think it’s common sense that everyone who uses local services should have a say on how they are run by voting for our local representatives.
Migrants living in the UK are part of local communities. We rent or own properties and pay council tax just like British people do. We use the same local services – our children go to the local school, we exercise in the neighbourhood’s park and we register at a nearby GP practice.
But many migrants cannot vote at all in local elections, while others, like EU citizens, are anxious about losing these rights in the near future.
Who can vote in the upcoming 2021 local elections?
Voting and candidacy rights are not straightforward in the UK. They depend on where you come from, the type of election, as well as where you live in the UK. This is why it’s not surprising that some migrants are confused about whether they can vote in the 2021 elections. In 2016, an Electoral Commission report found that EU migrants are the least likely minority group to be registered to vote, with only 53% on the electoral register.
In a nutshell, British, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens can vote and stand in national UK-wide elections. In local elections, there is an additional category of people who can vote and stand. EU citizens can elect or become local councillors, mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). These voting and candidacy rights are guaranteed for EU citizens in 2021, given that this year’s elections were initially due to take place in 2020, before the end of the UK’s transition period.
Many migrants cannot vote at all in local elections, while others, like EU citizens, are anxious about losing these rights in the near future
There is another layer of complexity to voting rights. In Scotland and Wales, local election voting rights, including for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, are based on residency. The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Act 2020 and the Senned and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 both extended voting and candidacy rights to non-British nationals.
Will EU citizens lose their local election voting rights next year?
The simple answer is: it’s still too early to call. The UK Government has a bilateral approach to voting rights with individual countries. Currently, agreements exist with Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and Poland on reciprocal voting rights at the local level. In addition, citizens of Malta and Cyprus will still be able to vote (in both national and local elections) because these two countries are part of the Commonwealth.
However, there is still uncertainty for many EU citizens, who are concerned that they may not be able to keep the local voting rights they enjoyed so far. It is not impossible to be in a situation where a Romanian citizen, for instance, will not be able to vote for the local council anymore, while their Spanish neighbour has these rights protected already.
Why do we want to keep those rights?
In the 2016 referendum campaign, EU citizens were promised that nothing will change for those who arrived in the UK before Brexit. Democratic rights are part of the package.
Will EU citizens lose their local election voting rights next year? Simple answer: it’s too early to call
EU citizens who arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020 must make a successful application for pre-settled or settled status through the EU Settlement Scheme to preserve their rights to work, access services and rent in the UK, amongst others. Yet voting rights are, legally, a separate matter and are not linked to the status one gets through the EU Settlement Scheme.
It is not right that rights are retrospectively removed. But we also want to keep democratic rights because we value them. Removing democratic rights disenfranchises people and sends them a message that the UK is not interested in what they have to say. Everyone has a stake in their local community and politics should reflect both the diversity of issues and people in every area of the country.
What’s the solution?
the3million believes that the simplest, fairest and most democratic way to ensure all EU citizens keep their existing rights is to level up local voting rights to all local residents. In other words, Northern Ireland and England could adopt the model seen in Scotland and Wales. This will create a consistent UK-wide approach to democratic rights and will be inclusive and fairer. Any other strategy leads to arbitrary and unfair divisions between groups of local residents.
Removing democratic rights disenfranchises people and sends them a message that the UK is not interested in what they have to say
Why should a Romanian citizen not be able to vote for their local councillor if their Spanish colleague can? Why should Commonwealth and EU citizens be able to vote for a mayor when their friends from the United States cannot? It’s time to have a modern franchise and seriously consider local election voting rights based on residency, not based on where someone happens to be born.
Alexandra Bulat and Lara Parizotto are the Co-Managers of the Young Europeans Network, the youth wing of the3million. The Young Europeans Network runs an EU voter registration campaign for the 2021 local elections.
[Header Image: the3mllion]