London (CNSNews.com) – The question of whether Europeans in Britain will retain the right to vote after the country leaves the European Union remains unresolved – a decision that could meaningfully impact the country’s future political direction.
Although not the most publicly contentious of issues as the United Kingdom negotiates its departure from the European bloc next year, there are an estimated 3.7 million citizens of other E.U. countries in Britain, and what voting rights they retain may significantly affect the political course of the nation.
Non-British citizens of E.U. member-states make up six percent of the British population according to the latest statistics.
Currently, they can vote in local and regional elections only, although through a quirk of electoral law those from Cyprus, Ireland and Malta can also vote in the far more important general elections – thus having an impact on the makeup of parliament and ultimately the government.
E.U. citizens, who are currently allowed to work in the U.K. without applying for a visa, automatically gain permanent residence after five years and can apply for British citizenship after six.
The government informed parliament this month that in the “Brexit” negotiations the E.U. has so far refused to include voting rights in the general withdrawal agreement, which means the issue will have to be pursued with the other 27 individual member-states.
Opinion polls this year have found that a majority of Britons surveyed support the right of E.U. citizens to vote in local elections post-Brexit. A little under half of respondent support giving them a vote in parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile government figures released last month show that the number of E.U. citizens coming from outside Britain to work is now at record levels.
In the July to September period this year, there were 2.38 million employees from the E.U. in the United Kingdom.
Ruth Grove-White, a policy adviser for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said giving E.U. nationals a vote in the general election could have a noticeable impact.
Research has shown that some regions in Britain – like East Anglia, which voted strongly in favor of leaving the E.U. in the 2016 referendum on the issue – are also home to a large number of citizens from elsewhere in Europe.
“It could tip the balance of the debate in those area because those E.U. nationals will have a voice,” Grove-White said.
She said the British government has for a long time not been clear as to where it wants immigrants to fit in in British society.
Sometimes, it has wanted them to come, work for a while and then leave. At other times, however, it has wanted them to settle down into their communities, she said.
Voting rights are an important part of becoming part of a country, she said. Extending them would make the path to citizenship easier.
Despite so much hanging in the balance, Grove-White said she could envisage the matter not being decided for months.
“We hear and we know from negotiations of these types that nothing is decided until everything is decided,” she said.
Elliott Goat, a spokesman for Undivided, a bipartisan campaign which focuses on rights for the under-30s in the wake of Brexit, said polls have found that the majority of young people care about retaining rights for E.U. citizens.
At the same time, many under 30s on the left, who had voted to leave the E.U., saw it as a strong opportunity to reform the voting system, he said.
Goat said they wanted to see a proportional voting system introduced in Britain and also tend to be concerned about environmental issues.
“They voted ‘Leave’ as a way to get away from the E.U. and reform Britain in quite a radical way,” he said.
Goat also said that many young people wanted to retain the working and voting rights in Europe that they now have as British citizens.
“If you’re under the age of 30, you’ve never known anything outside the E.U.,” he said.