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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Disenfranchisement: defending voting rights for EU citizens abroad
29 January 2014
The right to vote is a basic and fundamental political right.
That is why we have laws in place that guarantee citizens this essential right:
According to the EU Treaties (Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the Treaty on the European Union), every EU citizen has the right to vote in European and local elections in his or her Member State of residence. This is one of the key rights of EU citizenship in the EU Treaties. And with over 14 million Europeans living in another Member State than their own, this is also an integral part of the right to free movement.
And under national law, every citizen should have the right to participate in the national election of his or her country – on the basis of conditions laid down by that Member State. In short: National electoral conditions are a national responsibility.
So far so good.
But what happens to your right to vote in national elections when you, as an EU citizen, move to live, work, or retire in another Member State? And what happens when Member States apply rules which automatically remove the right to vote in national elections after a citizen has resided for a certain period abroad in the EU?
I know that some of you in this press room know the answer – because as expats you have been personally affected. Like many other EU citizens who have complained loudly to the European Commission, the European Parliament and to their respective governments: in letters, petitions and citizens' dialogues.
Why? Because those citizens who lose the right to vote in national elections and they do not receive a corresponding right in their country of residence (as they do in European or local elections). Instead, they are disenfranchised entirely - left without the right to vote, anywhere in the EU.
In a certain way such practice is punishing EU citizens for exercising their right to free movement in the EU.
Disenfranchisement practices such as these have created in fact – a group of second class citizens from whom something essential has been taken away from their home country.
We are talking here very often about citizens who, now more than ever, can and do easily maintain close links with their home country while making use of their free movement rights. They follow current affairs in their home country on TV, the radio and internet. They can travel home quickly and cheaply, they may even pay taxes or draw their pension there.
I have been talking with Harry Shindler, a British veteran of World War Two. Mr Shindler – who I had the pleasure of meeting last year – fought for his country during the liberation of Rome. But because he now lives in Italy, and has been there for more than 15 years, he has lost his right to vote in his own country.
The Commission listened to Mr Shindler and to all the other EU citizens. In our EU citizenship reports in 2010 and 2013 we committed to address this issue – together with the Member States.
Today the Commission is delivering on this promise. That is why we have issued guidance to those Member States applying disenfranchisement policies.
Five countries are concerned: Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom. I am asking these countries to show greater flexibility so that their own nationals are not automatically denied their vote after a certain period.
I am inviting them to enable their nationals who make use of their free movement rights to retain their right to vote in national elections - if they demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country. We believe these citizens should have the option of applying to remain on the electoral roll and should be informed about the conditions for retaining their right to vote in national elections.
Why are we doing that? This is about empowering EU citizens, who feel strongly about their country and making sure they are not automatically denied the fundamental democratic right of voting.
Never should the right to free movement lead to a loss of rights.
I very much hope that the countries will be ready to address these very concrete concerns raised by their very own nationals.