IT IS hard to doubt Harry Shindler when he says he is committed to his country. As a young British soldier, he helped liberate Italy from fascism. Since then he has helped the families of his fallen comrades to find their graves. On February 19th the British ambassador in Rome will make him a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his service.
But Mr Shindler really wants a simpler trophy: the right to vote. He is denied it because he has lived in Italy (“about ‘arf way up” the country, he explains in a still-strong south London accent) for the past three decades. Unlike America and most continental European countries, Britain withdraws the franchise from citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years.
Mr Shindler tried to overturn that rule nearly a decade ago by petitioning Conservative and Labour politicians. They retorted that he had severed his ties to Britain by living for so many years in another country. Not one to be put off, he took the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, which last year decreed that the British stance did not violate its convention.
But his battle caught the attention of Viviane Reding, a European commissioner, who met Mr Shindler in September. She accused Britain of punishing its citizens for living abroad in the EU. On January 28th the commission issued a recommendation—a legal instrument that is not binding but requires a response—condemning London’s position. The Cabinet Office says it will reply “in due course”, but that the government is “not minded” to change its stance.
For Mr Shindler, who wants to vote in the 2015 general election, this is farcical. “I fought a war for people in Europe to have the vote—and we won!” he says, adding that technology makes it easier than ever to participate in and keep abreast of British politics from afar. And he already has “a great big file, ready to go” in case the government rejects the commission’s recommendation. “I’m taking this to the United Nations next,” he says.
This odd, one-man crusade could affect Britain’s place in the world. At least 1m British citizens are thought to fall foul of the 15-year rule. Most of them live in the EU. In the coming years the country will probably hold a referendum on whether or not it should remain in the union: a decision that could affect these people more than most. “We may be forced to leave,” fears Charlotte Oliver, a British lawyer based in Rome, who is representing Mr Shindler. So giving more expats the vote may well bolster the pro-European cause. If nothing else, that might persuade the government—wary of fumbling the referendum campaign and presiding over an economically disastrous “out” vote—to lend Mr Shindler an ear.
© The Economist