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When France ‘ignored’ the result of an EU referendum

Many are now openly asking the question of whether the shock EU referendum in the UK can be ignored. France has recent history of doing something similar.

When France 'ignored' the result of an EU referendum
Demonstrators hold signs reading 'Respect our No, an other Europe is possible' after the EU constitution which was rejected in a referendum in 2005. Photo: AFP
The shock result of last week's referendum has plunged the UK into political and economic chaos.
 
With no apparent plan for the future out of the EU, many Remain voters and those Leave voters suffering from “Bregret” are now wondering if the best thing to do is just ignore the result of the referendum.
 
While this may seem outrageous, given that it's only been days since the votes were cast, there is history when it comes to ignoring divisive referendums on the EU. Not least in France.
 
Here's what happened in the French referendum, and how France dealt with it. 
 
The year was 2005, and the French were faced with a referendum on whether to ratify the European Constitution. 
 
Voters were specifically asked: “Do you approve the bill authorizing the ratification of the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe?”
 
Then-president Jacques Chirac is widely reported to have thought that a victory would be an expression of confidence in him by a pro-EU public, and he called for a referendum. Nine other EU countries also called for a referendum, although most (including the UK) didn't go through with it. 
 
But the bill prompted a bitter debate in France that split political parties on both sides and left 55 percent of the voters rejecting the bill after a turnout of around 69 percent.
 
A poll carried out by Ipsos after the vote found that 52 percent of “no” voters said that their deteriorating daily life conditions played a part in their choice, 40 percent said that the draft constitution was “too liberal”, and 39 percent of no voters said they had voted “no” hoping for a better treaty.
 
But no matter the reasons why they voted, the shock result sent tremors across Europe just like last week's Brexit vote.
 
Jacques Chirac. Photo: AFP
 
The move was described as a political earthquake at the time, not least considering France's role as one of the EU's founding members. 
 
Days later, the Dutch rejected the bill in a referendum of their own. Even though nine of the EU member states had ratified the treaty, European leaders eventually had to accept that the referendum results killed off the constitution.  
 
The EU member states were left having to come up with a plan B, prompting “no” voters in France to stage rallies across the country calling for their vote to be respected. 
 
By this point, president elections were on the way in France and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy pledged a re-negotiation without a referendum. He became president in 2007.
 
In the following months, the EU member states repackaged the constitution into what became the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, a document which, while not a constitution, was considered more or less the same as the one which the French had fairly resoundingly rejected.
 
Sarkozy presented the treaty to the French parliament and it was adopted.
 
Many French voters, especially on the left, believed their wishes that they had clearly presented in 2005 had been ignored.
 
Fabien Chevalier, the president of the pro-EU group Sauvons l'Europe, said that the 2005 vote broke the momentum of the integration of the EU. 
 
“Europe has the role of the bad cop, who has to respect the rules that are adopted by the member states. It's not surprising that people don't care anymore.”
 
This is considered to be a key moment in France's worsening view of the EU over the following years.
 
“The referendum marked a break. People voted, and there has been a refusal to accept the decision of the people. Disillusionment settled in,” said Marie-Georges Buffet, the leader of the French Communist Party from 2001 to 2010.
 
For the next decade, opinion polls showed that the French were falling out of love with the EU, to the point where a majority would like a referendum on Frexit.
 
Indeed, a survey from the CSA Institute last year found that some 67 percent of the French don't support the EU.
 
So perhaps it would not be so wise for British politicians to ignore the referendum. Worse may follow years down the line.

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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