Why EU Citizens in Britain Miss-Out on their Right to Vote

Christoph Meyer |

The outcome of the European Parliament elections on May 22 will determine the composition of the European Parliament (EP) as an institution which has been given considerable powers to influence the EU’s future direction. But it is doubtful whether the novelty of parties’ nominating “candidates for Commission President” will contribute much to lifting voters turn-out above the 34.7 % recorded at the last EP elections in the UK in 2009.

In contrast, voters are more likely to be motivated by the signal they can send to national politicians. “Europe” has become a salient topic in Westminster politics as both government and opposition parties have responded to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the Union. EU citizens without a British passport could be expected to be particularly motivated to send national politicians a message for three reasons:

Firstly, they cannot vote in general elections regardless of how long they have been resident in the UK unless they accept the costs of applying for British citizenship. Secondly, they are particularly affected by current and mooted measures to restrict their rights arising from the EU’s freedom of movement, including the eligibility to certain benefits. Thirdly, the outcome of the EP elections might influence the debate about an in-out-referendum, which, if “Brexit” were to happen, would significantly affect their status and prospects.

Yet despite these incentives, substantially fewer EU-citizens than British citizens are likely to take up this opportunity to make their voice heard. According to a study of the UK’s Electoral Commission of 2011, only 56 percent of EU citizens are on the electoral register as compared to 84 percent of British citizens. Only registered voters can exercise their right.

Given that 2.7 million UK residents were originally born in another European country, this gap translates into an absolute figure of 783,000 citizens not being able to exercise their right because they are not registered. The real figures will be lower as the resident numbers include children as well as a variable proportion of citizens born outside the UK but who hold a British passport. For instance, only 5 percent of the relatively new UK resident citizens born in Poland have a UK passport as compared to 55 percent of German citizens.

One important reason for the gap may be a lack of knowledge. The good news is that almost three quarters (72 %) of all European citizens said they were aware of their right to vote in EP elections and stand as a candidate in 2012. This figure has increased substantially from 54% in 2007. At the same time, it does mean that there are still 28 percent of EU citizens who lack adequate information.

Moreover, European citizens who are aware of this right might not know how to exercise it because of idiosyncrasies of the British electoral system. In contrast to many other European countries, acquiring a social security number or paying tax does not mean automatic enrolment to elections. Even 43 percent of British citizens erroneously believe that you are automatically registered to vote if you are 18 or over, a figure likely to be much higher for EU citizens.

Even those who are aware that one has to enrol in order to vote, may be deterred from doing so because they may think that enrolment requires extensive bureaucracy as is the case in some of their home countries. In the UK, however, there are only two short forms that need to be filled and no proof of identity is required. They may also be more suspicious than the average British citizen about their personal data being misused for marketing and fraud.

So a lack of knowledge and trust may explain part of gap in enrolment, but there could be also simpler explanations as the Electoral Commission’s study highlighted. One reason is that non-British EU citizens tend to be younger, more likely to rent and more likely to change residence. In particular, the significant number of new residents arriving from Central and Eastern Europe since 2004 tend to be younger. Moreover, they are coming from countries with predominantly very low level of electoral turn-out, including Slovakia and Hungary where turnout is as low as 20 percent.

Thus, a larger proportion of EU citizens will be affected by the same factors restricting the electoral participation of British citizens given the problematic method of registration through households: The Electoral Commission study found that only 56 percent of young people aged 19–24 were registered to vote in contrast to 94% of the 65+ age group. Similarly, 89% among those who own their property outright and 87% among those with a mortgage were registered as compared to 56% among those who rent from a private landlord.

So far there has been little information tailored to EU citizens available in the British public space, although the European Parliament office has been running an information campaign and the Electoral Commission generic ads. EU citizens not currently registered via their household, should go to https://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk to fill in the general form and the declaration that they are only voting in the UK. They should do so as soon possible rather than leaving it until the official 6 May deadline, particularly if they go through their local council’s electoral office. Postal delays could otherwise take away their opportunity to influence both European and national politics.

* Professor Christoph Meyer is Head of the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London