Speaking at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, Ms Reding stressed that Maltese citizens living abroad should be able to apply to remain on the electoral register and that they should be informed about how to retain the right to vote in national elections.
“There are many EU citizens who are disenfranchised simply because they used their right to move to another EU member state. And they turned to the European Commission asking for help,” Commissioner Reding said.
“We listened – and acted. We asked the five countries that take away voting rights after a certain period of time spent abroad to show greater flexibility.
“We invited them to enable their nationals who make use of their free movement rights to retain their right to vote in national elections – if they demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country.
“These citizens should have the option of applying to remain on the electoral roll and should be informed about the conditions for retaining their right to vote in national elections.
“This is about empowering EU citizens who feel strongly about their country and making sure they are not automatically denied the fundamental democratic right of voting. And it is about making sure citizens do not lose one right because they exercise another.”
In January, the European Commission called on Malta and the four other countries to stop disenfranchising citizens by not allowing them to vote unless they reside in their home countries.
In Malta, the issue becomes a bone of contention each time a general election rolls around, with political parties lodging court cases to have certain people struck from the electoral register under the voter registration rules in place.
In Malta, citizens are disenfranchised unless they have resided in Malta for at least six months within the last 18 preceding their registration to vote. Other EU member states with similar rules amounting to voter disenfranchisement are: Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, and the United Kingdom.
The EC issued “guidance” to EU member states with “rules in place leading to a loss of voting rights for citizens in national elections, simply because they have exercised their right to free movement in the EU”.
At the time, Ms Reding noted: “While under the existing EU Treaties member states are competent to determine who can benefit from the right to vote in national elections, disenfranchisement practices can negatively affect EU free movement rights. Disenfranchisement practices are also at odds with the founding premise of EU citizenship which is meant to give citizens additional rights, rather than depriving them of rights.”
The main justification for disenfranchisement rules – that citizens living abroad no longer have sufficient links with their home country – seems outdated in today’s interconnected world, the Commissioner said.
She added, “The right to vote is one of the fundamental political rights of citizenship. It is part of the very fabric of democracy. Depriving citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country is effectively tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement. Such practices risk making them second-class citizens.
“We are calling on member states to show greater flexibility and are issuing proportionate guidance to the five countries concerned so that citizens can get back on the electoral roll of their home country. I hope member states will be ready to address these very concrete concerns, because disenfranchisement is a big deal for the individuals concerned.”
The EU Commission’s recommendations are as follows:
- Enable their nationals who make use of their right to free movement in the EU to retain their right to vote in national elections if they demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country, including by applying to remain on the electoral roll;
- When allowing nationals resident in another member state to apply to keep their vote, ensure that they can do so electronically; and
- Inform citizens in a timely and appropriate way about the conditions and practical arrangements for retaining their right to vote in national elections.
Five EU countries disenfranchise some of their citizens
Malta. Maltese nationals are disenfranchised unless they have resided in the country for at least six months within the 18-month period preceding their registration to vote.
Denmark. Danes residing abroad are disenfranchised unless they express their wish to return to the country within two years.
Ireland. Rules are similar in Ireland to those in Denmark, except that a time limit is fixed at 18 months.
UK. UK nationals are disenfranchised if they have not been registered as residents in the country for the past 15 years.
Cyprus. Cypriot nationals are disenfranchised if they have not resided in the country during the six months preceding the elections (unless they are temporarily residing abroad as students, workers or permanently residing abroad for health reasons.)