EU Citizens’ Votes: Lost in Transition?

Richard Marsh and Fabian Zuleeg | 4 March 2018

EU Flag Edinburgh, Hugovk, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

Our report last year noted that EU nationals do not enjoy the right to vote in UK general elections. As the EU referendum used the general election franchise, it excluded EU citizens from the franchise. However, 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. The way the franchise was constructed in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 used this as the basis and thus conferred the right to vote to EU citizens resident in Scotland at the time.

Unless there are major changes to the way this franchise is constructed, it implies that EU nationals could vote in a future Scottish independence referendum if the UK is still in the EU at that point. However, if the UK has already left, most likely, EU citizens will not have the right to vote in any UK election or referendum. In effect, this would exclude a significant proportion of the current electorate from a future Scottish independence referendum.

The UK now looks set to leave the EU in March next year, but the expectation is that there will be a transition period of around two years following the UK’s exit. This transition period will effectively be a stand-still period, i.e. EU rules and rights will still apply. However, politically, the UK will no longer be part of the EU institutions, implying that UK citizens will no longer vote for the European Parliament. At the same time, EU citizens in the UK are likely to lose their voting rights.

Our report last year asked whether this would make a difference to the potential outcome of a Scottish independence referendum. Our report concluded that if most EU citizens voted ‘no’ in the 2014 referendum but would now vote ‘yes’ in a future referendum, it could have a significant impact: moving a cohort the size of the EU citizens (projected in 2020) from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ vote would have been just enough to switch the result of the 2014 referendum, resulting in a 51% yes vote.

Our analysis last year cited a report by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) that showed there were 181,000 EU Nationals living in Scotland during 2015 (SPICe, November 2016). The analysis assumed the number of people living in Scotland who are EU nationals (citizens) of other EU countries (outside of the UK) would increase by around 15,000 people each year. More recent data has been published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that in 2016 (July 2015 to June 2016) the number of EU Nationals living in Scotland had risen to 200,000 with a total of 206,000 people living in Scotland who were born in the EU. One year later (July 2016 to June 2017) there were 219,000 EU Nationals living in Scotland with 228,000 people who were born in other EU countries.

This suggests that our original assumptions are in line with the current patterns of migration in Scotland. The cohort of EU nationals in Scotland is continuing to grow and, most likely, will continue to increase during the transition period, however long it might last in the end.

But if there is a Scottish independence referendum during the transition period, these EU citizens will, most likely, be excluded from voting. Given the number of people involved, this might well have a material impact on the outcome of such a referendum, reducing the chance of a vote for Scottish independence.

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.