So what do you think about democracy and your right to vote? Sorry, but I can see you yawning already, but that cross in the box is important and many have struggled for years, and continue to give their lives, for the right to put a cross on the ballot paper every four or five years.
I was chatting to George the other day. Without doubt, he is the most boring and irritating friend that I know; he finds fault with everything and everyone. However, I continue to have dinner with him from time to time, as I find that he stimulates my argumentative juices and his distorted view of the expat world can be refreshing, and occasionally illuminating. We were on the subject of voting in the forthcoming European elections.
“I don’t bother to vote any more,” George announced as he was shoving a large piece of steak into his mouth. “There’s no point, and it never makes any difference.”
I sighed. I toyed with the vegetarian lasagna on my plate, determined not to let George rile me so early in the evening. He was not a bad man, but he really was not an asset as an expat, and would be far better moving back to Preston, where he could get all the Brit sausages, pork pies and bacon that he loved so much.
“Don’t you think it is your democratic duty, George? After all, the right to vote has cost many people their lives and much suffering in the past.”
My earnest words fell on deaf ears and I let George continue with his anti-democratic protestations. I was wasting my breath. My mind wandered to a recent news report about a 93-year-old British Expat, Harry Schindler, who is living in Italy. He recently took the British Government to court for not allowing him to vote in British elections, even though he has been living in Italy for the last 30 years. He has been battling in the courts for the right to have his vote restored for the last 12 years.
I do not share Harry’s views. Personally, I could not get out of the UK quick enough to start my new life in Spain, and continuing to vote in UK elections was the last thing on my mind at the time. I did, however, exercise my right to vote in both local and General Elections in the UK for about four years after I had left. Even though all expats are entitled to vote for 15 years after they have left the UK, I felt that I had no right to vote after I had left the country. Over time, I have become increasingly unaware of many British issues, and I have to confess that when I do return occasionally to the UK, I feel like a visitor returning to a foreign country.
I know that many expats will disagree with me. Certainly, many expats intend to return to the UK in time, whilst others will comment that British Government policy has a direct impact upon their family, pensions and finances, even though they are no longer living in the country, and therefore they have a right to vote. I respect their views, but would much prefer that I have full voting rights in my adopted country, Spain and the Canary Islands.
As it stands, I am entitled to vote in the European elections, as well as municipal elections in the Canary Islands. However, I have no right to vote in Spanish national or in the regional Canarian Government elections, as I am not a Spanish citizen. However, my home is in the Canary Islands, and I pay my share of local and national Spanish taxes, so being deprived of a vote seems just a little unreasonable, particularly after living in Spain for a lengthy period of time.
Back to the Harry Schinder story. The courts threw out Harry’s claim that was aimed to change a British law that says that expats can no longer vote in the country after living abroad for more than fifteen years. Schindler has not taken out Italian citizenship, which means that he too cannot participate in the country’s elections. Harry is determined to fight on and intends to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, because he believes that British law breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states everyone has the right to participate in the government of their country.
To me, this is precisely the point. I really would like the opportunity to vote in the government of the country where I live, work and pay taxes, but do not share Harry’s wish of being able to vote in the elections of a country that I am no longer part of.
Does it matter? Well, without laboring the point too heavily, I believe that it does. Most expats contribute greatly to the local economy, as well as the society that they have become part of. Surely an appropriate gesture would be recognition that, after a period of time, we can use our democratic voices in our adopted countries.
At this point, I remembered my mother’s wise words of never to talk about religion, politics, sex or vegetarianism at the dinner table.
“How about a nice dessert, George?”