A voice you haven’t heard. The political participation of UK-based EU citizens in the EU referendum

By Monika Bozhinoska, independent researcher

Last year, right before the EU referendum I conducted research aiming to explore how EU long-term residents in the UK construct their identities as political members of the UK. The findings of the research are briefly presented here. For a full discussion see my IRiS Working Paper:  European denizens: The political participation of UK based EU citizens at the EU referendum.

First, the research challenged the assertion of national identity as a key dimension of EU citizenship and as a grounding to membership in a political community. EU long-term residents in the UK develop feelings of membership and belonging towards the UK without developing identification with British nationality. The feeling of the UK as a home occurs even when there is a strong identification with the country of origin. As a result of the nature of their EU citizenship, interviewees had developed their membership and feeling of belonging in the UK without necessarily considering to apply for British citizenship. That being said, the feeling of belonging is not necessarily related to one’s formal citizenship.

Secondly, the findings suggest that voting rights are significant factors towards political integration on non UK citizens. Long-term EU residents in the UK argue for full political rights in the UK and justify their claim with their long-term contribution to the state and the fact that they are affected by the political decisions in the UK. The right to vote influences not just their feeling of political integration, but moreover, it affects their political behaviour. Focusing on their political behaviour during the UK’s EU referendum, EU nationals were mostly not involved. The research highlighted two reasons for exclusion in the referendum debate: the emphasis on EU migration and their lack of voting rights. Having said that, the voting rights can influence not just the political integration, but overall political engagement.

Finally, what we can learn from this experience is to acknowledge the limitations of current EU citizenship. The results support a suggestion for a reform of EU citizenship as a more substantive citizenship that will enforce bigger participation and inclusion.

To conclude, Brexit Britain challenged the status of EU citizens living in the UK and raised the question of the relation between national identity, belonging and citizenship. Following the increasing number of long-term EU nationals living in another EU state, it is important to consider the impact of political underrepresentation on their sense of belonging as EU citizens in Britain.

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