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ELECTIONS

EU acts to defend voting rights of expats in Spain

British and Irish expats in Spain who are fighting to hold on to the right to vote in their home countries were finally handed a boost by the European Commission on Wednesday. But will it change anything?

EU acts to defend voting rights of expats in Spain
Will Brits and Irish expats soon be able to vote without any restrictions on the time they have spent abroad? Photo: Shaun Curry/AFP

Expats living in other European countries should be given the right to vote in general elections – even if they’ve been abroad for years – the European Commission said on Wednesday.

Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, said citizens of the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Cyprus and Malta were effectively being “punished” and rendered “second-class citizens” for moving to other European countries – something they have the right to do under EU treaties.

Under current rules, British citizens lose the vote if they have lived outside the UK for 15 years. The other four countries restrict voting rights in other ways. Irish and Danes have to prove they mean to return to the country within a certain period of time.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental political rights of citizenship. It is part of the very fabric of democracy,” Reding said.

Citizens of EU member states living elsewhere in the 28-member bloc automatically have the right to vote in local and European Parliament elections, but rules for voting in national elections and referendums are decided by individual states.

Admitting she could not force countries to change their rules, Reding said countries should allow citizens to participate in national votes if they could demonstrate a continuing interest in the political life of their country. One suggestion is that they could demonstrate this interest by applying to remain on the electoral roll.

SIGN THE PETITION FOR EXPAT VOTING RIGHTS

In a recent Eurobarometer poll on electoral rights, two thirds of respondents said it was unfair that people lost their vote when they moved abroad within the EU.

The issue has been the subject of a campaign by British expats in various parts of the EU. Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy, last year lost his fight to have the restrictions overturned in the European Court of Human Rights. He likened his struggle to that of the Suffragettes.

Brian Cave, who lives in France, recently explained his position in an article for The Local France.

“Culturally I am British. I am very interested in how Britain acts in the world and who it decides to go to war with. I am tied up with Britain in every way and therefore should have the right to vote.

“The British government acts in my name but I don’t have a say in who it is."

Citizens of other European countries keep their vote under certain conditions. Germany requires citizens to be familiar with and affected by national politics. Austria requires voters to periodically renew their registration on the electoral roll.

British ministers have expressed qualified support for an extension of the franchise – Constitutional Reform Minister Mark Harper said in 2011 that the government was “considering” calls for change.

As yet, though, no concrete moves have been made.

While the most vocal campaigners want people to keep the vote in their home countries, others such as the Let Me Vote campaign say European citizens should be able to vote in the EU country in which they live.

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ELECTIONS

Catalan separatists boost majority in regional election

Catalan separatist parties boosted their parliamentary majority in a regional election Sunday that was overshadowed by the pandemic and marked by low turnout, more than three years after a failed bid to break away from Spain.

Catalan separatists boost majority in regional election
Jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras (R), freed temporarily to participate in the electoral campaign, celebrates result with Catalan acting regional president and ERC candidate Pere Aragones. Photo: AFP
With Spain still grappling with a third wave of coronavirus infections, the vote in the wealthy northeastern region was held under tight restrictions to reduce the risk of contagion.
 
With 99 percent of the votes counted, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists won the most votes but the three separatist parties together were set to get 74 seats in the 135-seat assembly.
 
That is up from 70 seats won in the last election in December 2017, just months after Catalonia's failed secession bid which led to the jailing of several separatist leaders.
 
To reduce the risk of virus transmission in the region, polling stations were set up in spacious venues like food markets, the area around FC Barcelona's football stadium and the bullring in Tarragona.
 
Voters had to wear face masks, use disinfectant gel provided at polling stations and stand apart while lining up in rainy weather to cast their ballots.
 
During the last hour of voting, which was reserved for people infected with Covid-19, polling station workers wore gloves, facial screens and white protective gowns.
 
The Socialists had 33 seats, up from 17 in the last vote when they finished fourth.
 
Sanchez had hoped the election — Catalonia's fifth in a decade — would end separatist rule in the region which accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
 
He fielded his health minister Salvador Illa as his candidate in the hope that his high profile in the fight against the pandemic would help win votes.
 
While separatist parties have been deeply divided over strategy since the failed secession bid, they were not punished by voters and for the first time won over 50 percent of the vote, against 47.5 percent four years ago.
   
The more moderate ERC got 33 seats, the hardline JxC got 32 and the radical CUP nine seats.
 
 
'Amnesia' jibe
 
The result leaves the ERC's main candidate, 38-year-old jurist Pere Aragones, best placed to become Catalonia's next leader.
 
“We have stopped an operation by the (Spanish) state to expel separatists from institutions,” he said after the results were announced.
 
Illa had argued it was “time to turn the page” after over a decade of Catalan nationalists governments focusing on separatism but Aragones dismissed his approach during the campaign as “amnesia”.
 
He has said his party would not turn the page while independence leaders remained in jail over the failed secession bid.
 
Catalonia is currently governed by a coalition led by JxC, which is prone to confrontation with Madrid, and the ERC, which is open to dialogue and has helped Sanchez's minority government pass laws at the national level.
 
 
'We are afraid'
 
The anti-coronavirus measures appeared to discourage people from voting.
 
While some 5.5 million people were eligible to vote, turnout was a record low at 54.4 percent, down from almost 80 percent in the last election.
 
“I hesitated until the last minute whether to come vote or not,” Cristina Caballero, a 34-year-old child educator, told AFP at a Barcelona polling station.
 
“I think these elections should have been postponed.”
 
The regional government tried to put off the election until the end of May because of the pandemic but the courts blocked that move.
 
While more than 40 percent of the 82,000 people assigned to help staff polling stations on the day had asked to be recused, all polling stations were operating normally as of noon, according to the Catalan government.
 
Still, some people picked for polling station duty expressed concern.
 
“Of course we are afraid, I just had cancer and am still on sick leave, but I was called up,” Eva Vizcaino, a 54-year-old office worker, told AFP at a Barcelona polling station.
 
“The last hour is especially frightening, when people with Covid come.”
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