The EU Referendum – who can and can’t vote?

Jon Danzig |

Citizens from over 70 nations will be able to vote in the UK referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. But most European Union nationalities will be excluded.

A spokesman for the British Prime Minster said:

“This is a big decision for our country, one that is about the future of the United Kingdom. That’s why we think it’s important that it is British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens that are the ones who get to decide.”

But the voting franchise on who can vote in the UK has more to do with Britain’s distant past than its future.  Its roots go back to Britain’s Empire, when countries across the world were ruled by Great Britain.  At one time or another, Britain invaded almost 90% of the world’s nations.  At the Empire’s peak, atlases showed half the world coloured pink, signifying British rule.

Over time, as the British reign softened, many of these countries became self-governing whilst retaining Britain’s monarch as Head of State.  The Commonwealth of British Nations was formed in 1949 with membership on a voluntary basis.  The last two countries to join The Commonwealth – Rwanda and Mozambique – have no ties with Britain’s Empire.

Commonwealth citizens are not regarded in law as foreigners in the UK. This is a legacy of the situation that existed before 1949 when they had the status of ‘British subjects’.

Including Britain, 55 countries across the world are members of The Commonwealth, and all citizens from those countries resident with ‘leave-to-remain’ in the UK will be able to vote in the referendum. 

They include citizens living in the UK from Australia, Canada, Ghana, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.  Just two EU countries are members of the Commonwealth, Malta and Cyprus, and citizens from those countries resident in the UK will also get a vote.

The right-to-vote in the UK elections doesn’t end when Commonwealth membership ends.  The UK’s Electoral Commission told me yesterday, “Commonwealth citizens retain their voting rights even if the country of which they are a national has been suspended from the Commonwealth.”

In addition, citizens living in the UK from 15 ‘British Overseas Territories’ will also have a say on Britain’s future in Europe, including those from Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Islands and Montserrat.  The British government has announced that residents of its Overseas Territory, Gibraltar, whether living there or here, will also be able to vote in the Referendum.

Citizens of the British Crown Dependents of the Isle of Man and the Channel Island also have the vote.  And as a result of a special treaty signed between Britain and Ireland, Irish citizens living in the UK will also have a vote in the referendum.

But citizens from 24 EU countries who have made Britain their home, who reside here, work here, pay taxes here and many of whom have started families here, will have no vote on whether Britain will stay a member of the EU, even though the decision directly affects them.   Many of these EU citizens have been living in Britain for over 30 years.  They hadn’t taken out British citizenship because, under EU rules, they all have European Citizenship, meaning that, like all EU nationalities, they can move to any other EU country and enjoy the same rights as native citizens of that country.

Except that residents here from other EU countries do not enjoy the same voting rights as British citizens – or those of over 70 nationalities, who because of Britain’s imperial past, still retain the historical right to vote in our General Elections and the forthcoming referendum if they are resident here.

EU migrants resident in the UK can already vote in Britain’s local and European elections, and could vote in last year’s Scottish referendum, so why not the forthcoming EU referendum, too?

EU citizens living in the UK who will be denied a referendum vote include French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Danish, Romanian and Swedish residents, whilst those living here from nations including Grenada, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka will have a say on Britain’s future in the EU.

Also excluded from the referendum vote will be British citizens who have lived abroad for over 15 years – an arcane rule that the new Conservative government has pledged to scrap. In future, all Britons, wherever they live, will enjoy ‘Votes for Life’ – but it’s been announced this week that the rule-change won’t come in time for the referendum. 

Uniquely for the referendum, members of the House of Lords will be given a vote, but unlike in last year’s Scottish referendum on independence, 16 and 17 year-olds will not. However, the fact that the UK government can amend the rules on who can vote in the referendum, means that it is politically and practically possible to change the voting franchise for what will be a once-in-a-generation (or-two) event.

Yesterday I contacted No 10 Downing Street, the home of British Prime Minister, David Cameron.  A spokesman told me that the voting rights and rules for the referendum will be broadly the same as those of a British General Election.  But, he added, it would be subject to the consent of Parliament.

Maybe our Members of Parliament will see sense and realise that there is a serious democratic deficit in allowing so many different nationalities to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, but to specifically exclude most nationalities living here from the rest of Europe, as well as denying a vote to many British people living abroad.  


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