The invisible minority: where are EU citizens’ voices in UK politics?

Dr Alexandra Bulat, Young Europeans Network Manager at the3million examines the voting rights of EU citizens. She highlights the barriers to their political participation and provides several recommendations for improving their representation in the UK.

What can we do to encourage EU citizens to use their democratic rights?

EU citizens make up over 5% of the UK’s population, yet we rarely hear from a local councillor with an EU citizen background. An Electoral Commission report showed that EU citizens are less likely to be registered to vote than any other group living in the UK. This is particularly the case for younger Europeans, who feel underrepresented in politics, but at the same time are less likely to participate.

This is why two organisations representing Europeans in the UK, the3million and the Eastern European Forum, started a consultation on EU citizens’ political participation and representation. This resulted in a report with key recommendations that was published this week.

The report outlines four key barriers to political participation: unequal and insufficient access to information; EU citizens feeling they are underrepresented or unrepresented in UK politics; underrepresentation of EU citizens in local authority positions; and limited resources for political education and community organising. This blog discusses the key recommendations to encourage EU citizens to use their democratic rights, in response to the barriers identified.

EU citizens’ democratic rights after 2021

The first step towards democratic engagement is the franchise. There are two principles deciding who can vote in a country – citizenship and residency. Under the citizenship principle, all citizens of a country can vote. There are also democratic systems based on residency, where people can vote based on where they are a resident, regardless of their nationality.

The UK applies both these principles, but neither consistently. For instance, in Scotland and Wales, all residents can vote in local-level elections, while in England and Northern Ireland these rights are only enjoyed by EU, Commonwealth and British citizens. Currently, EU citizens can vote in local and municipal elections in all parts of the UK. This has been confirmed for the 2021 local elections. However, after 2021, their voting rights rely on bilateral agreements negotiated between the UK and other EU countries. So far, agreements have been reached only with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland.

There are concerns that after 2021 some EU citizens will lose their local election and candidacy rights in the UK. We could be in a situation where a Spanish citizen who has lived in the UK for ten years will continue to have a say in local elections, while their Romanian neighbour, who has also lived in the UK for a decade, will not have the right to vote in any elections in the UK. Migrants’ rights organisations, including the3million, have been campaigning to preserve EU citizens’ local democratic rights in the UK and encouraged politicians to consider expanding these rights to all those who live in the UK, thus applying the residency principle.

Many EU citizens feel uninformed or misinformed on their democratic rights

Having the right to vote does not automatically lead to democratic engagement. EU citizens need to be accurately informed about their rights. Previous research has noted the gaps in knowledge about democratic rights in some minority communities, including EU citizens. The 2020 ‘Rights and Representation’ report published by the3million illustrated, based on focus groups with young Europeans, that many participants did not know they could vote in UK local elections. Yet even amongst those who were registered, many did not vote.

There is no shortage of recommendations calling for increased awareness of democratic rights through education and outreach programmes. The consultation report by the3million and Eastern European Forum highlights the need for more accessible and timely information on EU citizens’ democratic rights, such as through creating an online hub with resources, developed in collaboration with migrants’ rights organisations.

Data on EU citizens’ democratic engagement is unreliable or limited

Nevertheless, to effectively plan such resources and outreach programmes on voter information and engagement targeted to EU citizens, there is a need for reliable data on this group. Another key barrier to EU citizens’ democratic engagement is the limited data available on their voting behaviour and also their representation at the local level. When asked in the consultation, almost all participants felt underrepresented or unrepresented in UK politics. However, we do not have a precise picture of EU citizens’ representation at the local level.

The first census of local councils conducted by Begum and Sobolewska this year showed how ethnic minorities are significantly underrepresented amongst local councillors – 7% of local councillors have an ethnic minority background, compared to a 14% share in the UK’s population. While there is no information specifically identifying councillors with an EU citizen background, if we consider that EU citizens are the least likely group to register to vote, we could envisage how there could be even lower representation of this group.

Seizing the opportunities in 2021

The next year brings important opportunities to increase EU citizens’ political participation in the UK. A higher EU citizen turnout and overall mobilisation around the 2021 local elections could make a stronger case for preserving local democratic rights. For this to happen, local authorities, third sector organisations and other key stakeholders need to work together to inform EU citizens about their democratic rights in the first place.

These elections could also be used to improve data collection strategies on EU citizens’ democratic engagement. Moreover, as noted by representatives of community organisations such as Adina Maglan (CommUNITY Barnet) in the3million and Eastern European Forum consultations, as well as by other researchers and professionals, the 2021 census is a crucial tool to collect more reliable data on EU citizens, accounting for their political participation patterns.

There is also a need for improved qualitative insight, such as peer research projects within EU citizen communities. EU citizens are a diverse group and outreach on democratic engagement should consider various vulnerabilities and barriers to engagement. Successful evidence-based programmes of outreach and engagement are underpinned by a collaborative infrastructure built on long-term partnerships between community groups and local authorities.

Since the 2016 referendum, the number of EU citizens choosing to become British citizens has increased significantly. This means that more and more EU citizens will acquire the right to vote in national elections and referendums in the UK as British citizens through naturalisation.

It is time political parties and institutions took the issue of EU citizen participation and representation in UK politics seriously, as well as start engaging more closely with EU citizen organisations and communities. Community integration includes political participation, which in turn should lead to adequate representation.

Dr Alexandra Bulat is the Young Europeans Network Manager at the3million, an EU citizen-led organisation campaigning on EU citizens’ rights in the UK. She completed her PhD at University College London on the topic of attitudes towards EU migrants in the context of Brexit. Alexandra tweets about citizens’ rights @alexandrabulat.

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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