Harry Schindler. H.S.
A 91 year-old British expat, based in Italy, is heading to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels this week in his fight for voting rights for long-term British expatriates to be reinstated.
Harry Shindler, a World War II veteran, is angered that British citizens who live overseas for more than 15 years become automatically ‘disenfranchised’, meaning they are no longer eligible to vote in UK general elections.
The long-time resident of Italy, who served with the British Army in the liberation of his since adopted country, is to meet Michael Shotter, a senior legal adviser to Viviane Reding, vice-president of the EU.
The meeting comes after Reding, three months ago, offered voting rights campaigners such as Harry a glimmer of hope when in a speech she said: “We will work on ways to enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin.
“The practice in some member states of depriving their 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.”
Speaking to SUR in English ahead of next Thursday’s “crucial” meeting, Harry comments: “We are going to the EC because vice-commissioner Reding made a very important statement that the Commission would be working to get the right to vote for expats, so we asked to have a meeting with her.
“A group of individual campaigners will be meeting in Brussels, to make suggestions on how they can help us. The EC may be prepared to take legal action as a body.”
The move follows Harry Shindler losing a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) earlier this year in which he argued that the current ban on British expats voting after more than 15 years residing out of the UK is an infringement of human rights.
Last week he submitted an appeal on that ruling.
“If I do not succeed [with his appeal] at the ECHR I will go to the UN as the declaration is very clear. The UN Declaration on Human Rights sets out very clearly that everyone should have the right to vote,” the war veteran tells this newspaper.
“However, I believe we will ultimately be successful [at the ECHR] as we have right on our side. It was inevitable that women in the UK would obtain the right to vote thanks to the work carried out by the likes of the Suffragettes, and I believe it is inevitable that expats will also obtain the right without any restrictions to vote.”
He adds: “It’s a matter of principle. It cannot be possible that more than a million people in the EU are disenfranchised as they can’t vote in their new country of residence without being nationals of that country, and they can’t vote in their country of origin.
“If they have the right to vote, it is then up to them to decide whether they wish to exercise this right or not. It is not right that the government should take this right away from them.”
Harry Shindler’s lawyer, Rome-based Charlotte Oliver, of the firm Oliver & Partners, says she is hopeful for a favourable resolution.
She explains: “In May 2013, the Court published its decision, in which it found there was no violation of Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR, in fixing the time period of 15 years after which British nationals who were not resident in the UK could no longer vote in national elections.
“We have now asked the ECHR to refer the application to the Grand Chamber. This is not an ‘appeal’ exactly, but a request for reconsideration of the case.
“A panel of five judges will now decide whether this is a point of such public importance, or whether there has been a wrongful interpretation of the Convention, that the case should go forward to a panel of 17 judges of the Grand Chamber.
“We expect to receive a decision within the year, and this should then be considered by the Grand Chamber next year.”
The lawyer, who herself, being a long-term expatriate could also potentially lose her right to vote from 2016, adds: “It is very rare that a decision of the first instance court is reversed by a Grand Chamber, but I do believe and hope that this could happen, as vice -commissioner Reding has stated publicly that the rule is in breach of the EU treaty as it punished citizens for exercising their free movement rights.
“Even if the rule is not found to be a breach of the ECHR Convention, it is possible that proceedings could be initiated by the Commission at the European Court of Justice against the UK. This issue is central to the policy of the Commission for 2013 the Year of the Citizen, and Reding has said that British citizens have her full backing on this.”
The Electoral Commission
Having been put under pressure from several MPs from all the UK’s major parties – who are, in all probability, trying to secure votes from wherever they possibly can as they could ultimately swing the outcome in a close contest – the UK’s Electoral Commission is now to include expats in its campaigns to encourage more British citizens to vote in UK general elections.
The Commission says it intends to run campaigns in local media in destinations popular with British residents, such as southern Spain.
However, this measure will not affect the ban that prohibits Britons who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years voting in British elections.
The Electoral Commission, chaired by House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, is an independent body that regulates party and election finance and sets standards for well-run elections. It was set up by and is answerable to the UK Parliament.
It is estimated, according to offficial agencies, that there are between 4.7 and 5.5 million UK citizens living abroad. 3.5 million of these could – because they are over 18 years-old and have not lived overseas for more than 15 years – be eligible to vote in the UK.