Who should vote in the European referendum? You’re likely to see a lot of political debate about it in the next couple of months, but the answer to the question is not just a matter of political calculation. It depends on what you think the EU is, and what a referendum is meant to do.
On the wall of our office, next to the Wi-Fi code, hangs a copy of “the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen“, the founding text of the French Revolution. Art. 3 says, “the principle of all sovereignty resides in the Nation”. We can thank the French (and Thomas Jefferson) for the clearest argument for why only British citizens should be allowed to vote in the referendum.
If Europe is a grouping of nations, then each of those nations ought to be in control of whether it stays in or leaves. If that means that there is a lot of unwinding to do, where citizens of one nation have gone to live in another, then so be it. Your vote in the referendum is your expression of your part in the nation, not of you happening to be a person who lives on this island.It’s not hard to see that there are hints of ethnic nationalism in this. The Scottish referendum had a very different base, depending on your residency rather than your nationality – something of which many Scottish people living in England complained.
Taking a broader view of who should vote in the referendum is also taking a different view of what citizenship, and what the EU is.
If you take an citizen-centred view, a vote is an expression of a right to control over your political environment, then it seems unfair that a person who may have lived here for 20 years and brought up children has no vote, whereas someone who has lived on the Costa Blanca for 14 years and 11 months can. There is an 18th century slogan for this as well: “no taxation without representation”.
There is not an obvious right answer.
I understand the practical politics that mean a narrow referendum “yes”, that could be construed as being on the basis of a “foreign” vote would not close the question. But on the other hand, a narrow yes vote would not close the question anyway, as we have seen in Scotland.
It seems to me that the democratic argument is stronger for a more generous franchise than for a narrow one.
I think there are three main reasons why:
First, “taxation without representation”. No one yet knows the exact consequences if Britain votes to leave the EU, but at the very least there would be serious uncertainty for people whose right to live in the UK would suddenly be put to question for the first time perhaps in decades. To say that they have no right to any say in this feels contrary to the a basic democratic principle.
Second, that the EU needs democratic reform, and that reform must mean thinking of Europeans as individual citizens rather than national voting blocs owned by their presidents and prime ministers. Being the change we want to see means taking a citizen-centred view, and that reinforces the first argument for a broad franchise.
Finally, and this is less an argument than an observation, the individual rather than the national model of citizenship is the one that is going to predominate in the future. Nation states are still powerful, but their real and psychological power is shrinking as the world becomes more interconnected, and as people leave national allegiances behind in favour of transnational and/or local identities.
For me, all those arguments suggest that we should set the EU referendum vote as broadly as possible, both for EU citizens resident here and British citizens resident abroad.