Britons will soon be given the chance to vote “Yes” to stay in the EU, but many UK citizens living in EU member states look like being barred from the vote.
The government introduced its EU referendum bill to parliament on Thursday, a day after it was presented in the Queen’s speech.
The simple question on the ballot paper will be “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Voters will then be asked to answer “Yes” or “No”.
A statement from Downing Street said the vote represented “an important choice about our country’s destiny.”
“It will pave the way for the British people to have their say for the first time in 40 years on our place in the EU,” Downing Street said.
But the reality is, thousands of Britons who arguably have the most to lose if the “No” camp is triumphant, are unlikely to have their say in that choice.
Currently anyone who has been living abroad for 15 years or more is barred from voting in General Elections in Britain and the same rule will apply for the EU referendum, despite the result potentially having a direct impact on expats.
To twist the knife in even further the Conservative government has planned to scrap the 15-year rule at some point during Prime Minister David Cameron’s second term, but they seem unwilling to push this reform through in time for the referendum.
Instead it looks likely the referendum will be brought forward that may not leave enough for the voting rights bill to pass.
That stance has left many long term British expats in France both bemused and angry.
Christopher Chantrey, from the British Community Committee in France says he is at a loss to explain why the government cannot accommodate all expats.
“The outcome of the referendum will directly affect those British citizens living in any EU member state,” he told The Local.
“Members of the British community in France feel very strongly about this because of the potential impact on their lives, especially the early retirees, who would probably have to leave France if Britain left the EU.
“What I don’t understand is why the votes for life bill can’t be passed in time for the referendum. We haven’t been told why it seemingly can’t be done.”
‘No way to run a business or a country’
Chantrey says the stance of the UK government is bizarre when citizens of many other countries, including France, are given the right to vote for life.
“In France we hear all about the French community voting in the elections back home but Brits abroad are not treated in the same way.
“What makes Brits different from French, Spanish and Portuguese etc? What is it about Britain that means we lose our right to vote? A right to vote is primarily linked to nationality.”
Chantrey said the UK government is wrong to neglect its expats.
“It’s a bit like a shopkeeper saying ‘I’m not interested in these customers once they have left the shop,’. That’s no way to run a business and it’s no way to run a country,” he said.
Helen Curran, who lives in Boullay-les-Troux said there is similar concern among European nationals living in the UK.
“I am concerned about the fact that I can't vote in the referendum. I also have friends who are European nationals living in the UK, and they too are angry that they have no voice,” she said.
“When people complain about the “undemocratic” EU, do they consider the lack of voting rights for EU citizens around Europe?”
France based Brian Cave, author of the blog Pensioners Debout, who has been a long-time campaigner for the 15-year rule to be scrapped said: “I have been in France for more than 15 years and I want to vote in the referendum and all British residents in the EU should have it.
“We are in France as EU citizens not as foreigners, but if the UK leaves the EU then that’s how we will be seen and France can introduce any old law for how it treats foreigners,” he said.
With so much riding on the result of the referendum questions are being asked why exactly Prime Minister David Cameron is effectively denying so many the right to vote.
“The only reason I can think for why we haven’t been given the vote is that it’s a cunning ploy to keep all the Euroscpetics in the Tory party quiet,” said Cave.
While most Brits in France are united in the belief that they should be able to vote in the referendum, many are divided over whether the UK should actually remain in the EU.
In a debate on the Survive France Network, one commenter said: “I'll vote to leave as I believe that the EU has become an undemocratic leviathan serving only the egos of the richer nations and providing jobs for redundant politicians.”
Another responded: “I chuckle whenever I hear someone say how undemocratic the EU is. Yes, it has its faults, but the UK is governed by a party winning 37 percent of the votes looking after 20 percent of the population's interests, intending to scrap the human rights bill. God help us all if we do leave the EU.”