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Voting Rights - UK or Spain? PDF

By Paul Whitelock

alt February 26 – March 4, 2010

altIn his opinion piece, Have Your Say in the UK (SUR in English, 19 February 2010), Steve Jones, the British Consul in Málaga, urged UK citizens resident in Spain to make sure they take part in the coming UK General Election, by registering for a postal or proxy vote. 
But why? 

The British Government’s representative here is surely barking up the wrong tree.  A man in his position, with his undoubted influence as a British diplomat, should be lobbying for a quite different scenario, namely for foreign residents of Spain to be able to vote in General Elections here, not just in local and European ones, as is currently the case.  Indeed, this should be the norm throughout the European Union for citizens of member states who reside and pay their taxes in another member state.

This is a major issue of universal suffrage, which has raised its head once again, nearly a century after Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby as a protest against women not having the vote in Britain.

Giles Tremlett, the distinguished journalist and writer, and Madrid correspondent of the Guardian, wrote an interesting piece in that paper on 1 November last year, proposing an MP for the Costa del Sol.
His main argument was that as a 15-year resident of Spain and a taxpayer, he does not have the right to vote in national elections in either Spain or the UK.

He wrote: “Why not allow Britons living in [other parts of] Europe to vote in the national elections of their host country? Unfortunately neither the UK nor any other country in Europe seems to want that. As a result, I live in Madrid and pay taxes to the Spanish exchequer but have no say in how my tax money is spent.”

Tremlett continued: “And therein lies another problem. For not only am I prevented from voting in a Spanish general election, but, as I have lived abroad for more than 15 years, I have no right to vote in the UK either. I pay tax but cannot vote. Whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’?”

Tremlett pointed out that about a million Britons live for most or all of the year in Spain. Of these, 352,000 have registered at Spanish town halls as being fully resident. Hundreds of thousands of Britons live elsewhere across the European Union.

Those who left the country in the past 15 years, the vast majority, can still vote in UK elections. Most, however, do not bother. This is hardly surprising, since they must send their postal vote to the place where they last lived in Britain. People now living in Marbella, Torrevieja or Barcelona thus end up voting for candidates who are only interested in, say, the problems of Luton, Lambeth or Dumfries. That is not fair to them. What do they care, or know, about hospitals, post offices and planned ring roads a thousand miles away? It is also not fair to the people living in those constituencies.

British communities abroad have their own problems. Here in Spain, we worry about pensions, health rights, the bureaucracy and the exorbitant price of consular services (sorry, Mr Jones!).  Even the winter fuel allowance - yes, payable in some circumstances - matters to us. Many of those suffering the catastrophic effects of a weak pound would like Britain to be in the euro. Many more of us have problems with local housing laws that break EU rules.

Tremlett added: “Britain frets about immigration but cannot be bothered to think about emigration. It should do. Of the hundreds of thousands of diaspora Britons with the right to vote, only 12,800 are registered to do so. Some 200,000 Britons move abroad every year, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research. About 10% of all Britons, or 5.5 million people, live outside the country. ‘The UK government's lack of attention to its large diaspora stands in contrast to the measures being taken in other countries,’ the study noted. ‘In the UK, talk of establishing a member of parliament for the Spanish costas, a new ministry for Britons living abroad or even a special parliamentary inquiry would most likely be laughed down.’”

Nevertheless, in my view, the answer to this representation problem is quite simple.  If, as an EU national, you are tax resident in another EU country, you should have the right to vote in all elections, local, national and European in that country, and not in the country of your birth.  Simple, straightforward, no argument.

I am committed to Spain: I live here, am resident here, am empadronado and pay my taxes here.  I do not wish to vote in the UK, Mr Jones; I want to have a say in national government in my adopted country.

The sooner Brussels takes note of this and changes the law to remove the current anomalies, the better.