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24 April 2015

No vote, no voice: EU migrants and the general election

The chance has passed to register to vote. Some people will be gutted to have missed it. Some will not have bothered. Some might choose Russell Brand’s decision not to vote to raise their voice. And some people who are bothered will be left with no choice - and no voice.

By laura varriale

“None of us likes to be told we can’t do something,” says the voice-over in the Register-to-Vote TV ad in the commercial break during the Leaders’ Debate on ITV before the Easter weekend.

In the 30-second-long ad, people are prevented from taking a staircase, putting ketchup on their fry-up or entering a park.

“Some people can come in, some people can’t,” explains the man on the telly with a flipchart in his hands at a gate. The ad wants people to register for the upcoming general election.

But some people can and some people can’t.

“They want us here to spend money on houses or food and want us to pay taxes but they don’t want us to vote, to get involved,” says Aleksandra Maciejewski, 32, originally from Poland.

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It is a Saturday afternoon, just a few weeks before the general election, when participants of the EU Migrant Workers Group in Southport meet at the city’s Salvation Army Church.

Aleksandra, Igor Puskarski from Latvia and Marius Martisius from Lithuania discuss their voting rights in the country they chose as their new home.

“Where is the line when a migrant worker becomes just a worker?” Igor asks.

“When someone comes for a season and then goes back, that is a migrant worker for me,” says Aleksandra. Igor and Marius agree; they, however, are here to stay.

Almost 8m foreign-born people live in the UK, more than 2,5m of them are EU migrants. While citizens from the Commonwealth can vote in all UK elections, passport holders from non-EU countries are usually not able to vote in local or general elections. Citizens from EU member states are eligible to vote in local elections, but not in the general election. Confusingly, citizens of the EU members Ireland and Malta living here can vote because of the Commonwealth. But remember, your Spanish neighbour cannot.

Aleksandra moved to Southport in 2006 after spontaneously deciding to leave behind her life as a florist in Kruszwica, a small town 100 miles northwest of Warsaw.

“A couple of friends wanted to move to England and they asked me if I would like to join them. I said yes and they picked me up two days later. ”

Aleksandra is a lively person. She laughs a lot and when she speaks, she gesticulates energetically. She is a single mother of a 13-month-old daughter, studying to be a hairdresser at college and waitressing to finance herself and the baby.

Aleksandra received help from the Migrant Workers Sefton Community in Southport, a charity which supports migrants with bureaucratic issues and gives advice for the first steps when arriving in Merseyside. Southport, with a population of 90,000, has more than 2,800 EU migrant workers out of about 6,000 migrant workers in total. Although that does not seem like a lot, their influence on the town can be seen in Polish and Russian shops on the high street, in the city’s tourism business and the area’s agriculture.

Igor, an NHS worker who helps with translations for Southport’s Migrant Workers group, came to the UK from Riga in 2008. The 28-year-old spent most of his adult life here and when he travels to Latvia for family visits, he now feels foreign there.

“Everything has changed and will continue to change. In a few years, I will have nothing to go back for. I feel like a foreigner there,” he says in the Northern accent that he has picked up over the years. He says he does not feel like a migrant worker.

Igor’s parents moved to England before him and during the financial crisis that hit Latvia hard in 2008, he decided to go too.

Igor is currently in the application process for UK citizenship and is searching for a house to buy together with his girlfriend. But due to changes in the application regulations, the process takes a long time. The Home Office did not initially want to accept his translation diploma from Manchester University and downgraded his language skills.

Marius is in a similar situation. He has two sons, aged six and two. He is trying to get UK citizenship for his second son, who was born in the UK. The 33-year-old relocated together with his wife from Lithuania to Southport in 2010. But Marius says the toddler cannot get British citizenship because the family did not live here for five years prior to their son’s birth.

“It would be easier for him to have UK citizenship,” says Marius. “We are going to stay here for a long time. It would be good if at least one child could have a passport from Britain. When you’re a foreigner, you will stay a foreigner. It will never be ‘properly’ your country.”

People looked at him when he arrived in the UK: “They could see that I am not from here, saw my name and they thought that I can’t be from here. But I think British people are getting used to it now.”

Marius observes and listens to the discussion before he chips in. The operator in a food factory is a reserved but friendly character who searched for financial security when he and his wife decided to move here. The UK was not necessarily their first choice. They considered going to Denmark or Norway, but decided to move to the UK, after Marius’ cousin, who lives here too, suggested relocating here. Marius says that they also thought it would be easier for them to start working here. This proved to be right. Two weeks after arriving in the UK, Marius got a job, a flat and a few months later his wife and son followed him.

Igor says: “I think English people have wrong opinions of how things work. A few days ago I had a discussion with colleagues and they think that as soon as people arrive in the UK they start to claim benefits and get gifted everything. I started laughing and asked ‘where do you get that from?’ ‘From the news’, they said.”

But migrants are also often unaware of their rights. A part of the Migrant Workers group is to explain to EU migrants that they can vote in the local elections, because no one else tells them. Igor remembers one particular evening when he saw a taxi with a Ukip badge on the back of the car. “I was swearing like hell and told the driver that he can’t put that up and show his political views at work.” The driver was foreign.

“He was uninformed,” Igor says. “I told him what Ukip stands for, that the party wants to kick him out. He was surprised.”

When asked about the possibility of the UK leaving the EU, Aleksandra says: “I don’t know how the referendum will affect me personally. But I know it won’t be good for England. Europe is now the Empire.”

Aleksandra, Marius and Igor would not describe themselves as political, but they want the right to vote. “Our lives are not different to UK citizens. What the government says affects us in the same way,” Aleksandra says. She explains that she probably would not have voted if she had the choice. But she puts it like this: having a choice not to vote is better than having none.

“No taxation without representation,” says Tommy Tomescu, president of the Europeans Party and dedicated to drawing awareness to the issue. Tomescu, originally from Romania, is a founding member of the party established in 2013 that aims to enforce the same voting rights as members of the Commonwealth for EU migrants living in the UK. The party believes that most of the political parties in the UK do not defend the interests of EU migrants. In last year’s European election the party gained around 10,700 votes.

“The right to vote in the UK is not necessarily given by the citizenship,” says Tomescu, a dentist who moved to the UK in 2010.

He bases his argument upon the fact that UK law says that UK nationals who live overseas for more than 15 years can no longer vote in the UK, even by post.

“It is not fair to be discriminated. There are now more EU residents in the UK than from the Commonwealth,” Tomescu says.

“A lot of people ask me how it is that they cannot vote here although they are members of the European Union, while people from Malta or Gibraltar can.”

He explains that with recently introduced rules on housing and child benefits, which make it harder for EU migrants to claim for them, EU nationals get continually fewer rights in the UK.

Earlier this year, London-based Tomescu wrote to 650 MPs and members of the House of Lords and introduced to them the party’s “Let Us Vote and Stand” campaign. He invited them to discuss the issue, but only a few got back to him with a positive response.

“One of the members said straight away ‘no, we will never allow you to’,” says Tomescu.

“But Lord Balfe of Dulwich broadly agreed with me and asked if I had a draft bill that can be presented to Parliament.”

Lord Richard Balfe is well known for being a political maverick. The Conservative peer was expelled from the Labour Party in 2002 when he, against the party’s will, stood for election as one of the European parliament’s five quaestors who overlook the administrative and financial interests of MEPs. Two months later, the longest-serving Labour member of the European Parliament joined the Tory party. Lord Balfe was the first elected Labour politician to cross the floor since Reginald Ernest Prentice in 1975.

But the timing of the draft for a change of legislation is bad. The Parliament is currently dissolved until a new government comes into power and Lord Balfe is probably too busy before the election, says Tomescu.

The dentist by day and politician in his free time is currently working with several lawyers on an action letter and wants to start a judiciary review process after the election.

But what happens after the election? There is the realistic possibility of an in/out EU referendum within the next two years with an open outcome. If Britain really leaves the EU, how likely is it for a change of voting rights in favour of EU migrants?

Tomescu says: “Several people told me that I shouldn’t do it, because we would not win. But I say: if we do it now, then people will think by the time of the referendum that we are right.”

Professor Ivor Gabor from Sussex University, who works as election analyst for the BBC and ITN, says that the forthcoming election results are highly unpredictable and believes that a “Brexit” is very unlikely.

“The UK will stay in the EU. Businesses and the media will start to work against an exit. It will probably be like in the ’75 referendum,” he says.

In that referendum, the country voted in favour of staying a member of the European Economic Community, which was incorporated into the newly formed European Union in 1993.

Ukip leader Farage, married to an EU migrant himself, is well-known for campaigning for an EU exit and a decrease in immigration. He has also said that he does not want his German-born wife Kirsten Mehr to vote in the referendum and nor does she.

“Discrimination in this country is happening in stages,” says Tomescu. He explains that it began with scaremongering of an “invasion of 30 million Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain”, which turned out not to be true. Last year, Tomescu travelled to Nigel Farage’s hometown Westerham in Kent to see how people reacted when he confronted them and asked if they would have a problem with him as neighbour.

“I don’t think they are doing so well,” says Tomescu. He thinks that Ukip pushes the arguments against immigrants further and further. “Mark Reckless started to discuss the deportation of EU migrants after leaving the EU.” Tomescu does not believe that UK voters really want to vote for that.

Reckless, Ukip parliamentary candidate for Rochester and Strood, claimed he was misinterpreted when he made this comment at a hustings debate last November. Ukip spokespeople tried to calm down the following row and said that the party prefers an Australian points-based system of immigration, where immigrants are selected based on their skills.

“Step-by-step Ukip goes further and they want people to accommodate their views. This is very shocking,” says Tomescu.

Recent statistics show that there is an increase in UK citizenship applications by EU migrant workers from the former Eastern Bloc countries that entered the EU in 2004. In 2013, 18,000 EU migrant workers from that part of Europe were granted a British passport.

Taking part in an election is important for Tomescu, but becoming a British passport holder is not a solution for him. “I could apply in a few months for a UK citizenship. But from my point of view it will still be unfair for EU migrants to have different rights to Commonwealth citizens.”

The registration deadline for the election was this Monday. Some people will be gutted to have missed it. Some will not have bothered. Some might choose Russell Brand’s decision not to vote to raise their voice. And some people who are bothered will be left with no choice – and no voice.