A Conservative victory in the recent UK general election has brought the prospect of ‘Brexit’ into focus. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and hold an in-out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017. Today’s Queen’s Speech has paved the way for such a move.
The EU referendum bill, which will be introduced to Parliament tomorrow, will establish who will be eligible to vote.
Government officials have confirmed that the franchise will be roughly the same as that used for general elections: British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK, British citizens who have lived abroad for less than 15 years, as well as members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens living in Gibraltar – all over 18 years old – will have a vote.
This means that more than 1 million EU citizens living in the UK, UK citizens who have lived abroad for 15 years or more, and 16 and 17 year olds will not be able to vote in the EU referendum.
This will be the first referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU since 1975, and it is vital that it is carried out fairly and in accordance with democratic principles.
Democracy is about giving people a say in decisions that affect them. And, arguably, no one will be more affected by the outcome of an EU referendum than the very people who are being excluded from it.
As a British citizen living in the UK, I will not be forced to give up my job, my home, and my family and friends in the event of ‘Brexit’. For EU citizens living in the UK, on the other hand, the impact is potentially huge. As the SNP’s Angus Robertson put it, “If a vote for the UK to leave the EU was successful, it could have deeply damaging consequences on the lives of those people who have chosen to live and work here, and on their families.”
Excluding EU citizens living in the UK from voting in the referendum is both unfair and an affront to core democratic principles. This view was echoed by the Scottish Parliament’s Europe Minister Humza Yousaf, who told BBC News: “Excluding EU citizens, many of whom live here for a number of years, pay their taxes, their children attend local schools, to disenfranchise them over their own future in this vote is illogical, is utterly perverse and creates a democratic deficit.”
“We don’t want to enter into the rhetoric of division and I think that’s exactly what this franchise aims to do,” he added.
Alongside foreign nationals and Britons living abroad, young people arguably have the greatest stake in the outcome of this referendum. It is their political landscape, and the opportunities open to them, that is being shaped after all.
The extension of voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence has been hailed as a success story and strengthens the idea that young people should be given greater control over their future.
Giving the lie to the notion of youth apathy, close to 100% of eligible voters between 16 and 18 years old registered to vote, and Scotland has since seen a huge surge in democratic participation amongst young people.
Why, then, should young people not be given the opportunity to have their say on the question of EU membership? After all, as Robertson pointed out: “Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can pay taxes, get married and join the armed forces, so it is only right and fair that they should also be entitled to vote.”
We will need to wait until tomorrow to know the exact contents of the EU referendum bill. But, if we are to believe what government officials have said so far, the franchise will be a restricted one, excluding those who will be most affected by the referendum’s outcome from having a say. This is an affront to core principles of fairness and democracy, and should not be allowed to stand.