EU Voters in Scotland: A Potential Game Changer?

Richard Marsh and Fabian Zuleeg | 4 August 2017

Referendum Day, Lawrence OP, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Earlier this year David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, was quoted in the Financial Times on EU nationals’ rights after Brexit: ‘They’ll have the right to welfare, the right to healthcare, the right to pensions, as they would if they were permanent residents. The only rights they wouldn’t have are those citizenship rights — the right to vote in a general election’.

While non-UK EU nationals do not currently enjoy the right to vote in UK general elections, EU citizenship gives every EU citizen the right to vote for and stand as a candidate in municipal and European Parliament elections in whichever EU country the citizen resides, under the same conditions as nationals. This right is conferred directly on every EU citizen by Article 22 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.

Contrary to the UK’s EU referendum, where eligibility to vote was determined by the general election franchise, the way the franchise was constructed in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 conferred the right to vote to EU citizens resident in Scotland at the time. Unless there are major changes to this franchise, it implies in case of a future Scottish independence referendum that EU nationals would be eligible to vote, if the UK is still in the EU at that point.

However, if the UK has already left, this voting right is no longer protected by the EU treaties and it is unlikely that the EU will demand the continuation of these rights in the Article 50 negotiations, in part to avoid the tricky question of reciprocity of voting rights of UK citizens living in the rest of the EU. Of course, the UK could unilaterally decide to extend the franchise for any UK election or referendum to any group it chooses post Brexit, as it is has done, for example, to Irish and certain categories of Commonwealth citizens living in the UK. But it seems rather unlikely that the UK would choose to grant these rights to all EU citizens resident in the UK.

In effect, this would exclude a significant proportion of the current electorate from a potential future Scottish independence referendum, if the referendum takes place after Brexit. Could this make a difference?

A report by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) showed there were 181,000 EU nationals living in Scotland during 2015. Just over 150,000 (84%) of those were aged 16 or over and would therefore have been eligible to vote under the franchise of the previous referendum. The number of EU citizens living in Scotland is actually lower than the number of people living in Scotland who were born in other EU countries (outside of the UK), as some EU citizens have decided to become UK citizens. The number of EU citizens becoming UK nationals will increase in response to the Brexit decision, but the final magnitude is difficult to predict.

Based on historic trends from the Annual Population Survey (APS) the number of people living in Scotland who are EU nationals (citizens) of other EU countries (outside of the UK) increased by around 15,000 people each year. If this rate of increase were to stay broadly the same until 2020, the number of EU nationals living in Scotland could rise to around 250,000. If the age profile of EU nationals living in Scotland were to remain the same then by 2020, there would be around 215,000 EU nationals that are 16 years of age and over living in Scotland.

This rate of increase is based on historical data before the EU referendum. There may be an increase in the number of people coming to the UK before the doors close or people may decide to leave in greater numbers. In addition, EU nationals might choose to move within the UK, for example from England to Scotland or vice versa. Whilst it is difficult to determine how these dynamics will play out, so far there has been continued net migration from the EU into the UK since the EU referendum.

How significant are the non-UK EU voters in the context of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum? The table below shows there were around 384,000 votes separating the two sides.

2014 Scottish Independence Referendum Result

Yes1,617,989 44.7%
Invalid votes3,4290.1%
Registered voters and turnout4,283,39284.6%

People who were born outside of the UK (which also includes eligible non-EU citizens) voted against Scottish independence in 2014 with 57.1% against and 42.9% for. The vote against independence was slightly higher than for all Scottish votes (57.1% compared to 55.3%).

While it is likely that a number of EU citizens would switch from voting against to voting for independence in a future referendum, to preserve Scotland’s place in the EU, it is difficult to predict the extent. As an illustration, if the 2014 referendum voting positions of people who were born outside of the UK could be switched from 57.1% against and 42.9% for, to 42.9% against and 57.1% for (applied to the projected 2020 EU citizen cohort), it would be equivalent of closing the 2014 gap between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ by around two percentage points.

If all EU citizens vote ‘Yes’ to independence, it could have a significant impact: if the 2020 projected number of EU citizens were assumed to have unanimously moved from the No to the Yes cohort in the 2014 referendum, it would have been just enough to switch the result, resulting in a 51% Yes vote.

While there can be no definite predictions, it seems clear that the decision when to exit the EU and when to hold an independence referendum could have a material impact on the outcome, given the potential size of the non-UK EU citizen cohort, which might or might not be eligible to vote in such a referendum. If a second referendum is held before Brexit, EU voters could tip the balance towards independence. If it happens after the UK, and Scotland, leaves the EU, then this would reduce the likelihood of independence by excluding the cohort of non-UK EU citizens from the vote.

Richard MarshRichard Marsh | Twitter


Richard Marsh is an economist and Director of 4-consulting based in Scotland. He is a member of the Scottish Government’s expert group advising on economic accounting, impact modelling and economic statistics.

Fabian ZuleegFabian Zuleeg | Twitter

European Policy Centre

Dr Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive and Chief Economist of the European Policy Centre. He is also Honorary Fellow of the Edinburgh Europa Institute and Advisory Board Member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.