Britons barred from voting in EU referendum

3rd January 2005, Comments 0 comments

3 January 2005, MADRID-Registered voters in Spain's 500,000-strong, British expatriate community have been barred from voting when the country becomes the first member state to hold a referendum on the new European Union constitution in February, it was reported.

3 January 2005

MADRID-Registered voters in Spain's 500,000-strong, British expatriate community have been barred from voting when the country becomes the first member state to hold a referendum on the new European Union constitution in February, it was reported.

The majority of Spaniards are even unaware there is a forthcoming referendum, but the ban has angered expatriates planning to vote, Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.

And the manner in which the Spanish government has apparently covered up the move has enraged them further.

"They haven't even had the courtesy to inform foreigners that this a Spanish-only referendum," says Kate Mentink-Duncan, a Scot who, as an opposition Partido Popular councillor in Calvia, Majorca, is Spain's only British-born politician.

"Expats have found out they can't vote only by default. Unlike Spanish nationals, they should have received their voting papers by now and, only when they raised the matter with their local town halls, have they learnt they have been disenfranchised."

A spokesman for Spain's Interior Ministry, which is organising the referendum, said: "Non-Spanish residents of EU nations are free to vote in their home countries."

But this is still undecided as each member state is being allowed to determine its own conditions regarding the referendum vote, including who is and isn't entitled to take part.

Phillip Bushill-Matthews, British Conservative MEP for the West Midlands, claims that this was an error by Brussels.

"Tony Blair could do the very opposite of the Spanish when he calls the referendum in Britain," he said.

"We could then see pro-constitution, non-British European citizens flood across the Channel just to cast their `Yes' vote."

Given the determination of the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodrigues Zapatero, to win a resounding "Si" endorsement, critics believe Madrid has covertly taken a decision to disenfranchise non-Spanish residents - especially more europhobic Britons - for fear their participation will result in a humiliating defeat.

But, such is the level of indifference in the minds of the country's 18 million national voters, Spain's Socialist government anticipates the turnout on 20 February will be as low as 20 per cent in some regions.

The media has down-played the debate and, bizarrely, the only real airing of the proposed constitution's complexities has been between contestants on Gran Hermano, the Spanish version of Big Brother.

And the fact the issue has been a topic of discussion on the country's most watched TV show came only after Spain's vice president, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, demanded broadcasting chiefs pay it some attention.

"What's at stake," says Ms Mentink-Duncan, "is an issue affecting all EU citizens and to bar some from having their legitimate say over the constitution is undemocratic and unconstitutional - even if there isn't yet a formal constitution on how Europe works.

"Expats are the true Europeans who have chosen to live in EU nations other than those of their birth, and have helped enrich their adopted countries in a vast number of ways."

According to EU rules, citizens of member states who become residents of other community countries are entitled to participate in municipal and European MEP elections. So many expatriates understandably believe the referendum vote is an extension of that franchise.

But Mentink-Duncan, 60, a founder of the Association of European Citizens, which was established in 1993 to lobby for non-Spanish nationals' rights, thinks ruling socialist planners are worried there could be a repeat of her party's surprise success in a local poll in Majorca 18 months ago.

Dubbed Spain's "dirtiest local election" and tarnished by allegations of town hall corruption and vote rigging, British expatriates were galvanised by helping to oust a Left-wing administration that had ruled for 20 years.

Mentink-Duncan's centre-Right PP won by the slender margin of just 258 votes, despite thousands of foreign residents complaining their names were missing from the electoral roll when they arrived at polling stations to cast their ballots.

She said last week: "Opinion polls in Spain have been reporting that the referendum result will be close, so the expat vote could have been crucial. And the government knows full well that most foreign non-residents - led by the British - were the most likely to have voted 'No'."

In Majorca, where 60,000 Britons are permanent residents, feelings are running high at what they see as an assault on their legitimate EU voting rights.

Many also feel other nation states will copy the Spanish example and disenfranchise the estimated 25 million citizens who reside in EU countries other than their own.

May Irving, a former nursing sister from Birmingham who has lived on the holiday island for 15 years, says: "All my Spanish neighbours have received their voting papers.

"But me, my husband and my expat friends haven't heard a jot, though we are all registered voters.

"I've been told it's a waste of time complaining, because it's a fait accompli and too late to do anything anyway.

"We've been kept in the dark about being denied our rights and it's outrageous - there's more democracy in the Ukraine than there is here."

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Subject: Spanish news

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