Confusion over who will be allowed to vote in Britain’s referendum on the European Constitution will end tomorrow when the bill authorising the referendum is published.
The bill, which was introduced to Parliament today by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, will set out who be allowed to vote in a referendum, according to an official in the Department of Constitutional Affairs.
In November, the Sunday Times reported that Constitutional Affairs Minister Chris Leslie had refused to rule out giving citizens of other EU countries the vote in the referendum.
The issue was unclear because the general law covering referendums in Britain does not define who should be allowed to vote in any given referendum.
“That doesn’t cover who is able to vote in any specific referendum,” explained Pauline Prosser of the Electoral Policy Unit in the Department of Constitutional Affairs. “The idea is that it would depend on what the issue was and who it was appropriate to vote on that issue.”
Responding to a Parliamentary question last week, Leslie said:
The final decision on the franchise will be a matter for Parliament to decide. The starting point, however, will be that those people eligible to vote in elections to the Westminster Parliament, as well as members of the House of Lords and the people of Gibraltar, will be eligible to vote. The Westminster franchise consists of British citizens resident in the UK either currently or at any point in the past fifteen years, Commonwealth citizens with leave to enter or remain in the UK, and citizens of the Republic of Ireland (with whom the UK has a reciprocal arrangement). All those in the categories must also be of voting age and not subject to any other legal incapacity to be eligible to vote.
In the Republic of Ireland, resident UK nationals are entitled to vote in local, national and European elections — but not constitutional referenda. In the UK, resident Irish nationals may vote in Parliamentary elections in addition to the local and European voting rights they have as EU citizens.
But unless Irish voters are specifically excluded from the UK referendum bill, this arrangement might give Irish nationals votes in the constitutional referendums of two countries.
It is up to each member state of the EU to decide how to decide whether to ratify the European Constitution. Ten countries, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, have opted for a referendum.
Confusion about the appropriate franchise for these referendums has not been limited to the UK. In Spain, British and German expats led by a British-born local councillor protested last week at the Spanish government’s decision not to allow them to vote in Spain’s referendum on 20 February.
Citing spokespersons for the ten countries’ EU permanent representations in Brussels, European Voice reported this week that only the Netherlands and the Czech Republic had not finalised their decision about the franchise for their referendums.