The European Union (EU) is a political and economic partnership that involves 28 European nations. In 1957, West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, and France signed the Treaty of Rome, thereby creating the European Economic Community (EEC) and establishing a customs union. Over a period of time, several changes took place in the region and more countries joined the European Communities. The European Union was formally established on November 1, 1993.Ever since the United Kingdom joined the Community (now the EU) in 1973, its membership has been a topic of debate across the country. The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, more commonly referred to as the EU referendum, is a general vote to decide whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave it.
The poll has been scheduled to take place in the UK and Gibraltar on Thursday June 23, 2016. Voters will be asked the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” They will be given two options, of which they have to choose one: Leave or Remain.
This will be the third plebiscite held throughout the UK and the second one in which the British electorate has been asked to vote on the EU membership issue. The first referendum on the same subject was held in 1975, when the EU was still the EEC. At that time, the membership was approved by 67% of the voters. The nature of the EU has undergone a significant amount of change since then, and this is why this referendum is expected to be a much closer contest than the last one.
The whole affair began in January 2013, when David Cameron stated that if the Conservatives won the parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election, the government would negotiate feasible arrangements to continue Britain’s membership of the EU prior to holding the referendum. During the negotiation, political leaders from Germany and France stated that the UK couldn’t choose the terms of its membership. At the same time, these nations, along with the US, supported Britain continuing to be a member of the EU.
Those who are in favor of the “Brexit” (a portmanteau word for British Exit) claim that the membership of the EU weakens parliamentary sovereignty. Leaving would also mean instant cost savings of billions of pounds for the country, as the UK wouldn’t have to contribute to the EU budget. On the other hand, those who are in favor of remaining state that the withdrawal may risk the UK’s prosperity in many ways and result in diminished influence over global affairs.
Since no country has ever pulled out of the EU so far, there is a lot of uncertainty associated with the outcome. According to NatCen Social Research, current trends show that 55% of eligible voters want to remain in the EU while 45% of them are in favor of a Brexit.
Prime Minister David Cameron says that he will initiate Article 50, which is the formal mechanism for exiting the EU in case the final poll results show that a majority of people are backing the Brexit. This will mark the start of a two-year period of negotiation to end the membership. However, experts predict that the actual separation will take much longer.
Who can vote in the referendum?
The eligibility for being able to take part in the EU referendum has been based on the general election voting criteria. If you are a British citizen over the age of 18 and are on the electoral rolls, you can register for participation as long as you belong to any one of the following groups:
– British citizen, residing in the UK
– Irish citizen, residing in the UK
– British citizen residing overseas for under 15 years
– Irish citizen, born in Northern Ireland and registered to vote there within the last 15 years
– Citizen of Malta or Cyprus, residing in the UK
– Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK
– Commonwealth citizen residing in Gibraltar
– Members of the House of Lords in Gibraltar
Most EU citizens who can vote in the local and European elections held in the UK won’t be allowed to cast their votes in this referendum. Also, citizens of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey can’t participate, as these regions are not a part of the EU.
Legal battle for amendment of the law
One of the main controversies surrounding the eligibility criteria of the EU referendum is that British expats who have lived outside of the UK for 15 years or more aren’t allowed to cast their vote.
This comes on the heels of the British government’s pledge to change the “15-year-rule” and to “end the disenfranchisement after an arbitrary 15 years of British citizens living abroad” as per the Queen’s speech to Parliament after the election in 2015. To read a transcript or listen to the speech, log on to the government’s website.
A legal challenge was brought about by two expats: Harry Shindler, a 94-year-old Second World War veteran who lives in Italy and Jacquelyn MacLennan, a lawyer residing in Belgium. They believe that they, along with thousands of other British citizens, are being illegally denied the right to vote just because they live in another country. In April 2016, these expat campaigners appealed to the judges at the High Court in London to give all British expats living in Europe the chance to participate in the Brexit polls.
In April 2016 Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Mr. Justice Blake rejected their effort to force the government to grant voting rights to the disenfranchised expats. They stated that the EU Referendum Bill stands as it is since it doesn’t breach the expats’ right of free movement as per the EU Law. They also added that the government is entitled to adopt a cutoff period where long-term residence outside of the country may be an indication of weakened ties. Furthermore, they believe that authorities have no definite way of validating the previous residence of Brits living overseas for over 15 years. More than 700,000 British citizens living in Europe will not be able to vote in the referendum.
According to Leigh Ray, representatives of the claimant, now that the High Court has ruled against them, Shindler, MacLennan, and other expats plan to appeal to a higher authority. Their solicitor Richard Stein has said that they now intend to take the legal battle to the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country, to ensure that all the British citizens living across the EU can participate in the democratic process of voting in the referendum because the outcome of the poll is bound to have a very real impact on their lives as well. He added that there is no need to link the votes of Britons in Europe to any constituency in particular and that possession of a British passport should be enough.
In an article by the Guardian, MacLennan’s quoted response to the judgment was, “The government made a manifesto commitment to enfranchise all British citizens, no matter how long they have been abroad saying that they thought that ‘choosing 15 years, as opposed to 14 or 16 years, is inherently like sticking a dart in a dartboard’ and that ‘if British citizens maintain British citizenship that brings with it rights, obligations and a connection with this country, and that that should endure’. We just want the government to keep its promises.”
The British government isn’t against the idea of changing the law. A spokesperson has gone on record with Euronews saying, “The government believes expats should retain their right to vote as long as they remain citizens, and we will legislate to scrap the current arbitrary 15-year time limit as soon as parliamentary time allows”. At the same time, authorities have clarified that they don’t expect the bill to complete its passage and be implemented in time for the referendum.
The potential impact of expats’ votes on the referendum
So far, no substantial polling has been conducted with British emigrants to know their stand on the Brexit. Contrary to what individual surveys and interviews show, there are no homogenous lumps of Leave or Remain voters. It is therefore impossible to know which side expat voters will predominantly favor. A few commentators believe that expats’ votes are likely to give “Leave” a slight boost. However, there is no adequate evidence to substantiate this claim.
How to register to vote
The procedure for registration is the same for voters from England, Scotland, and Wales. Like all the other voters in Great Britain, you need to log on to www.gov.uk/register-to-vote and follow the simple procedure there. To register from Northern Ireland, visit the official webpage for The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and download the appropriate form.
Those who are eligible to vote can sign up for the referendum poll online; the entire procedure should take no more than 5 to 10 minutes. If you reside in the UK all you need is your National Insurance Number. If you live abroad, you’ll also be asked to enter your passport number. Do bear in mind that you have to be on the electoral list for voting in referendums and elections.
Log on to the UK Government’s official registration page to understand the criteria and instructions for registration. You can also specify your voting preference through this site. The deadline to sign up is June 7, 2016. While the option to register will be open even after the deadline, you won’t able to vote in the referendum. If you are already registered to vote in the May 5th elections you don’t have to undergo this process again.
After completing the online process you’ll receive a poll card that identifies your polling station. As the date of the referendum gets closer, you’ll be able to locate your station online here. You can also download the voters’ registration form from this link.
How to vote
You have the option of choosing your preferred voting method depending upon your location and personal circumstances. It is important that you register the way you plan to vote under the new system. There are three methods that you can choose from:
Vote by Post
One of the options for expats living overseas is voting by post. Bear in mind that you need to have enough time to receive and return your ballot papers by the day of the poll. Get in touch with the local authority of your registered address to know when the postal ballots are being sent out. If you are not sure you’ll be able to return your ballot paper on time, the next option may be more appropriate for you.
Vote by Proxy
Many expats living abroad are applying to vote by proxy. If you choose this method, you can appoint someone else to visit the poll booth and vote on your behalf. However, you need to ensure that both you and the person you appoint are eligible to vote and are registered under the new system. Also remember that if you apply for proxy voting, you will have to state why you can’t be there in person.
Vote in Person
Casting a ballot at a polling station is possible for those who are in the UK on the day of the election. All the stations will be open from 7:00AM to 10:00PM on June 23, 2016.
If you have appointed a proxy, it is still possible for you to vote personally, but only as long as the proxy hasn’t already voted on your behalf. If you have opted for the postal vote method, you will not be given a new ballot paper at the polling station. However, you can hand in the completed ballot paper you received in the post at the booth.
Voting count and results
The polling booths are not expected to have more than 2,500 electors. Once the polls close at 10:00PM, the ballot papers will be taken to the local counts. There are 380 council areas in Britain plus one area each for Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. The result will be declared as soon as it is determined by the 382 local counting officers. Both national and regional running totals will be available. The final result will be announced at the Manchester Town Hall.