British and European citizens will be voting in local elections on 3rd May. For the latter, it may be the last time they exercise this democratic right.
Is this really the last local election for European citizens living in Britain? It certainly looks that way, given that voting rights of migrant EU citizens are not covered by the recently negotiated withdrawal agreement. The right to vote in local elections is enshrined in European law and the only chance to protect it beyond Brexit is through a series of bilateral agreements that now have to be negotiated between the UK and the 27 remaining EU member states. There is a chance this may happen in time but the Brexit clock is ticking, and citizens are getting worried.
During the 2016 referendum campaign there was much talk of a democratic deficit within the EU. According to this view, civic participation is being stifled in Brussels where the complexity of decision-making leaves little room for public engagement. However, there is another form of democratic deficit that never receives quite the same level of attention: the political exclusion of migrant EU citizens. Their voices are practically absent in public debates in countries where they live and pay taxes. This is mainly because they cannot vote in national elections, which still set the tone of the political discourse. Can the franchise for local elections, guaranteed by the citizens directive, compensate for it?
For the last three years, I have researched political participation of migrant EU citizens in Britain. I interviewed activists and members of trade unions, community organisations, and campaign groups, but I was also investigating the effects of electoral participation on the local level. In May 2016, just weeks before the EU referendum, I spent a day taking to voters outside polling stations during the local election in Bristol. Most voters I interviewed linked their participation with a growing sense of belonging.
One of these voters, Pavel, put it this way: “For the first three of four years I didn’t care about local elections at all, but then it changed. Whichever way you look at it, I’ve lived in this place for some time and it’s also mine now. In Slovakia, I used to live in many different places. A couple of years here, a couple of years there... And I never developed a connection to any particular place. But here, for eight years now, I’ve been in one place.” He said it was his civic duty to vote, and he was keen to make his voice heard as a local resident. But he did not link that vote with the wider national politics – to him and most other voters I spoke to local elections were about local matters, and they also saw it as a chance to reaffirm belonging, and feel like a citizen in a country that is not their own.
On the third of May many of the decisions will undoubtedly be influenced by Brexit negotiations. Today, many wonder whether migrant EU citizens will decide to side with one party or another. Some may decide to “punish Labour” for not defending their rights more robustly, after Harriet Harman’s amendment to protect the rights of migrant EU citizens was voted down in parliament. This is an important question but there is more at stake than party politics. The turnout at local elections is notoriously low and hardly exceeds 35%, so an unprecedented mobilisation by the three million migrant EU citizens could make a difference. But even if one party gains a few councillors at the expense of another, this is unlikely to be a change dramatic enough to force a fundamental change of policy on the national level.
And still, the3million, the largest grassroots organisation of migrant EU citizens in the UK, has urged their members and followers to register to vote and make their voice heard. It is not about stopping Brexit through a local election, but about engaging citizens with the electoral process in general. The act of voting may help reassert belonging in Brexiting Britain, so it is a way of showing that “this place is also mine now”. It is also about saying that the right to have a voice, however feeble, is fundamental in an open and democratic society. Not all is lost, and a significant turnout from migrant EU citizens might help advocate for bilateral agreements that will protect their right to vote beyond Brexit. And, who knows, it may also start a debate on the democratic deficit in Britain. If we really want to take back control, we should not start by taking away the right to vote from three million citizens who made Britain their home.