1.5 million Europeans living in UK could get to vote on EU exit
Up to 1.5 million European nationals living in the UK could be given a decisive vote in the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
Conservative Ministers are said to have been confronted in private by Eurosceptic MPs who are concerned that David Cameron could water down his promise to give the British people a say over the UK’s future in Europe because he wants Britain to stay inside the EU.
The row centres on a decision over which electoral register is used for the referendum which is due to take place by the end of 2017.
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The government said it would decide on the franchise for the plebiscite when it publishes the EU Referendum Bill, expected in the coming months.
Tory MPs who oppose Britain’s membership of the EU want the referendum to use the General Election voter register, with the addition of allowing peers in the House of Lords to vote.
However, they fear that the government could be persuaded instead to use the separate electoral register for local council and European Parliament elections.
This allows 1.5 million citizens of other EU countries who are living in Britain to vote in local and European elections.
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There are 45.3 million voters on the electoral register for Westminster, and an estimated 46.8 million who are registered to vote in local and European Parliament elections.
If the In versus Out campaign is closely fought, the votes of EU citizens could be decisive.
Privately, government sources have indicated that they expect the “starting point” of the Bill to be Westminster register, which excludes foreign nationals.
However, MPs fear that Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, pro-EU Tories and the Labour party, which is opposed to a referendum, could join forces in an attempt to tip the balance in favour of an “in” vote.
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These groups could gang up on the government in the Lords and force through an amendment to the Bill, changing it so that the local government electoral register, which includes European residents, is used.
Bernard Jenkin, the senior Conservative and a leading Eurosceptic, said such a move would be “ridiculous” if it happened.
“It would be very odd to use anything but the national franchise because EU citizens do not take part in general elections and they are represented in the European Union by their own national governments,” he said.
“This is a national decision and should therefore be based on the national franchise, not the local government franchise. We wait to see the Bill but I do emphasise it would be extremely odd for the Bill to say anything else.”
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David Lidington, the Europe Minister, was privately tackled over the issue of the franchise in Westminster last week, as fears grew among Tory eurosceptics that the government could cave in.
Philip Davies, another Conservative MP, said: “It would have to be the General Election franchise. Anything else would be unacceptable.”
“I have always defended the House of Lords but if they were to start playing silly sods over this, I am afraid I would be voting for their abolition in no time at all.”