Foreign voters to lose out in poll for Strasbourg: EU citizens resident in Britain miss today's registration deadline

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The Independent Online
TODAY is the last day for the 900,000 foreigners living in Britain who are also citizens of the European Union to register to vote in the forthcoming European elections.

But thanks to the Government's policy of official neglect, the overwhelming majority of these would-be voters have not yet been informed of their right to vote and stand in European elections for the first time under the Maastricht treaty. Most are expected to be disenfranchised as a result.

'The Government is frightened of foreigners voting against the Tories and terrified of the right wing in the party,' said Andrew Duff of the Federal Trust in London.

By deliberately setting an early cut-off point and then refusing to pay for advertisements alerting EU citizens of their voting rights, the Government has probably excluded the majority of these new voters from the most important election in the European Parliament's history.

The Government apparently fears that most continental Europeans living in Britain may vote against the Conservatives in the June election because of the party's increasingly Euro-sceptic image. There are also fears that efforts to inform foreigners of their rights to vote could further inflame right-wing Euro-sceptics at a time when the erosion of sovereignty to EU institutions is a burning issue within the party.

The focus of the election campaign is expected to be domestic, but with a more European backdrop than before because of the row in the Conservative Party about creeping EU federalism.

European elections are usually low key, but issues such as the Parliament's growing role as overseer, set against the declining influence of national parliaments and the increasing powers of the Union, have added a new significance.

The German embassy has taken out national newspaper advertisements to alert its citizens in this country, some 230,000, about their rights to stand and vote in European elections.

'It's bizarre not to let people know they have the right to vote,' said Simon Osborn of the Electoral Reform Society. 'One of the reasons we have elections is to enable people to participate.'

The prominent Euro-sceptic, Sir Teddy Taylor, announced himself satisfied with the arrangements, however: 'The idea that the UK should go round advertising and telling people they can vote would be an outrage.' Because only 33 per cent of the electorate bother to vote in European elections, Sir Teddy feared letting the newly enfranchised foreigners know of their rights 'could have a distorting effect'. on the outcome.

A Home Office spokesman denied yesterday that the Government was playing down the voting rights of EU citizens and said that 'appropriate steps' had been taken to publicise the new franchise. It had distributed information sheets (in English only) to embassies of the Twelve and a press release had been issued.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has sharply criticised the Government's tactics and accused it of showing little urgency in getting the word out about the new electoral rights. The Government has also refused to pay the extra expenses of local authorities for registering foreign voters, despite the tight budgetary constraints under which most are working.

The London borough of Richmond Upon Thames estimates that about 2.7 per cent of its electorate are foreign EU citizens and put the cost of registering them at pounds 15,200.

Although most foreign EU citizens are none the wiser about their right to vote, Irish nationals and Commonwealth citizens have long held the right to vote.