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EU Commission defends voting rights of Cypriots living abroad

30 January, 2014

The European Commission issued guidance on Wednesday to EU member states which have rules in place leading to a loss of voting rights for citizens in national elections, simply because they have exercised their right to free movement in the EU.

Five member states, namely Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom, currently apply regimes which have that effect.

Whilst under the existing EU Treaties, member states are competent to determine who can benefit from the right to vote in national elections, disenfranchisement practices can negatively affect EU free movement rights. Disenfranchisement practices are also at odds with the founding premise of EU citizenship which is meant to give citizens additional rights, rather than depriving them of rights.

The five EU countries currently have national rules leading to a loss of national voting rights as a result of periods spent residing abroad. The rules vary considerably, with Cypriot citizens losing their vote if they have not resided in Cyprus six months prior to an election, while British citizens need to have been registered to vote at an address in the UK for the last 15 years.

There are other member states which allow their EU nationals to maintain the right to vote under certain conditions, such as Austria, which requires overseas citizens to periodically renew their registration on the electoral roll, or Germany, which requires citizens to be familiar with and affected by national politics.

According to the Commission, the main justification for disenfranchisement rules - that citizens living abroad no longer have sufficient links with their home country - seems outdated in today’s interconnected world.

The guidance issued by the Commission aims to tackle the problem in a proportionate way by inviting member states to enable their nationals who make use of their right to free movement in the EU to retain their right to vote in national elections if they demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country, including by applying to remain on the electoral roll.

It also invites member states, when allowing nationals resident in another member state to apply to keep their vote, to ensure that they can do so electronically, and to inform citizens in a timely and appropriate way about the conditions and practical arrangements for retaining their right to vote in national elections.

Vice-President of the Commission and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said "the right to vote is one of the fundamental political rights of citizenship" and "it is part of the very fabric of democracy."

"Depriving citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country is effectively tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement. Such practices risk making them second-class citizens," she said.

Reding noted that "in letters, petitions and citizens` dialogues, citizens have made clear to us just how important this issue is to them," adding that "this is why, in the 2013 EU Citizenship Report, the Commission made a pledge to address the matter."

"Today we are doing our part of the job. We are calling on member states to show greater flexibility and are issuing proportionate guidance to the five countries concerned so that citizens can get back on the electoral roll of their home country. I hope member states will be ready to address these very concrete concerns, because disenfranchisement is a big deal for the individuals concerned," she pointed out.

The Commission notes that on 19 February 2013, the European Parliament and the Commission held a joint hearing on EU citizenship. Participants, including citizens affected, civil society representatives, Members of the European Parliament and experts underlined the need to reassess existing policies that disenfranchise citizens - and the justifications underpinning them - in the light of current developments towards more inclusive democratic participation within the EU.

In addition, in a recent Eurobarometer on electoral rights, two thirds of respondents thought that it was not justified that they lose their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin simply because they reside in another EU country.

The 2013 EU Citizenship Report set out 12 concrete ways to help Europeans make better use of their EU rights, from looking for a job in another EU country to ensuring stronger participation in the democratic life of the Union. The Commission committed in the report to working on constructive ways to enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin.