A letter urging the UK government to overturn a ban that will prevent as many as 2.2 million UK expats from voting in the upcoming EU referendum has been sent to Prime Minister David Cameron by Michael Reeve, CEO of Portugal’s foreign residents association afpop.
The issue centres on the fact that expats who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years cannot vote in the upcoming referendum.
As the UK’s Guardian newspaper points out: “Unlike most general or local UK elections, the issues at stake in the EU referendum could have an immediate and significant effect on all expatriates.”
And while Cameron’s government has said it plans to scrap the ban, this won’t happen before the June 23 referendum as there “isn’t enough parliamentary time”.
Thus, Reeve’s impassioned letter, spurred by concerns from his association’s members.
Michael Reeve’s full letter reads as follows:
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing to you as the operational director of the largest foreign residents’ association in Portugal, and possibly in Iberia, afpop (the Association for Foreign Property Owners in Portugal). Currently we have a membership of just short of 6,000 expatriates, around 70% of which are UK citizens. I have received several questions and comments from British expatriates, as a result of which I have reviewed carefully details regarding the 15-year embargo on UK citizens abroad from voting in the UK and with particular regard to the upcoming EU referendum. It is in light of those questions from afpop members that I am writing to you today.
In the transcript of the debate in the House of Lords of 18 November 2015 regarding the amendment moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, there are objections to the amendment from Peers which appear to be based around either the likelihood of those people to vote, or the potential for them to skew the result because they have a bias towards remaining in the EU. Neither of these two arguments is valid in the context of the discussion.
The issue at hand is that people have their right to vote in this most important referendum removed solely because of an arbitrary time limit set, and changed at least twice, by a UK government. The government’s role is to represent and safeguard the rights of UK citizens, not to remove them. I have lived in Portugal for 13 years and am therefore eligible to vote in the election. A colleague of mine has now passed the 15 years earlier this year and is not eligible. This is manifestly unfair.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom stated that the amendment was, in his view, an attempt to “slew the whole playing field” and stated that it was “extraordinary” that the Lords seemed determined to “bring in amendments that will make it more likely that we will stay in the EU than leave it”, which is the very definition of ‘slewing the playing field’ in my opinion. Restricting people from exercising their right to vote on the grounds that they may not vote in the way you want them might appear to some as dictatorial. He also questioned how valid the result would be seen to be, if the result was to stay in the EU and it was carried by the votes of expatriates with a vested interest in staying in the EU. Surely the same question must therefore be levied if the vote goes the other way and the result is to leave and those same expatriates are not allowed to vote.
There was some discussion about the numbers of people and how that might affect the result, but again this is not the remit of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Decisions about whether citizens have rights are in no way related to how they may exercise them. Whether or not people choose to vote is exactly that, choice. It is not for parliament to decide if we are likely to vote and how we are likely to vote and then decide if we MAY vote.
I know that you have had many discussions and representations about this issue Prime Minister, but this fundamental right of British Citizens, who are all taxed in life and death by the UK government and who represent the UK within the EU both privately and in business, needs to be afforded to all, whichever side of an arbitrary time limit they may fall. Those same citizens have taken decisions about how they live their life based on rights that they have as EU citizens and which were afforded to them by the UK’s membership of that institution. Those rights will be fundamentally affected by the decision of their fellow citizens in the referendum and it will be the same for those who have been in the EU for 14 years or less and 15 years and beyond.
Whilst of course I only have any real knowledge of the situation regarding expatriates in Portugal Mr. Cameron, I am certain that associations like ours that exist in other countries are experiencing exactly the same level of concern from amongst their memberships. People feel cut off from the very government that controls much of their future.
I urge you to reconsider to remove this arbitrary time limit, even if only as an exceptional measure for the referendum. The representations that I have heard about how people might be identified and then register are absolutely no different for people either side of the 15-year cut off and are simply a way to muddy the discussion.
Time is of the essence as you are well aware, Prime Minister, and action is needed now rather than more discussions back and forth. Please do not marginalise your fellow citizens. I urge you to contain this measure, which was in your manifesto, in the upcoming Queen’s speech.
Michael R Reeve