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BRITONS IN EUROPE

‘Mixed feelings’: British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

British citizens living abroad will no longer lose their right to vote in UK elections if they have been abroad for over 15 years, after a long-term government pledge finally became law. Here's what we know about the new rules.

'Mixed feelings': British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life
Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

What’s happened?

The UK government’s Elections Bill finally passed through the House of Lords in the British parliament on Wednesday night. Part two of the bill was was hugely important for British citizens living abroad because it restored their right to vote in UK General Elections, no matter how long they have lived abroad for.

Previously the so-called ’15-year rule’ meant Brits who had been out of the country for more than 15 years lost the right to vote back home. This rule effectively barred tens of thousands of Britons abroad from voting in the 2016 EU referendum, despite the fact the result had a direct impact on their lives.

It is believed the bill now extends voting rights to some 3.5 million British nationals living around the world, over one million of those living in Europe.

The move marks a victory for those Britons who have long campaigned against the 15-year rule, none more so than 100-year-old Harry Schindler, a British citizen living in Italy who began the campaign many years ago.

What’s the reaction been like?

Whilst the reaction has been mainly positive to the change, there were reasons for Britons not to be satisfied. 

Jane Golding, former co-chair of British in Europe, and chair of British in Germany was, like many, unhappy with the another element of the bill that means voters will have to show mandatory photographic ID at the polling station, a move that critics say will make it harder for less well-off citizens and young people to vote.

“We are of course very pleased to have our votes back and pay particular tribute to the tenacious campaign that Harry Shindler has run for many years to make this happen,” Golding told The Local.

“Members of our British in Europe steering committee, including myself, have also campaigned for many years to make this a reality but it is difficult to celebrate a bill that undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission and will probably make it more difficult for lower income or disadvantaged UK resident citizens to vote. Moreover, the proof will be in the pudding: a right is only a reality when it is properly implemented.”

Sue Wilson, from Bremain in Spain also struck a similar note.

“Today’s long-awaited result brings with it mixed feelings. My 15 years outside of the UK will be up in August, so my stake in the outcome is very personal. I should feel like celebrating the overdue restoration of our democratic voting rights.

“However, it’s impossible to ignore the cost to others and to UK democracy in general. Where we are gaining back voting rights, others will be disenfranchised by the new requirement for photo ID. The bill has also removed the independence of the Electoral Commission and made it easier for foreign money to influence future elections. What should today feel like a win, sadly does not.”

What are ‘votes for life’?

The new rule will allow British citizens living in another country to continue participating in the democratic process in the UK by retaining their right to vote – no matter where they live or how long they have been outside of the UK.

The changes were part of the Elections Bill, and also make it easier for overseas electors to remain registered for longer through an absent voting arrangement.

This means electors will have to renew their registration details every three years instead of annually.

How can British people overseas use ‘votes for life’?

The new “votes for life” will apply to all British citizens living overseas who have been previously registered to vote or previously resident in the UK.

The absent voting arrangement means individuals will be able to reapply for a postal vote or refresh their proxy vote at the same time as renewing their voter registration.

However, overseas electors will only be entitled to register in respect of one UK address, with clear rules put in place surrounding this. 

British people wishing to register to vote under the new measures will also have to show a “demonstrable connection” to a UK address.

Furthermore, individuals will have to register in the constituency of the last address where they were registered to vote, or the last address where they were a resident.

The government states that someone can demonstrate their last address by checking past copies of the electoral register or local data such as tax records, or by documentary evidence or, “failing the above, an attestation from another registered elector”.

Why has the UK government made these changes?

Unfortunately this comes too late for many Brits abroad to get a say in the thing that has had the biggest impact on their lives – Brexit – but it’s better late than never.

In a previous press release, the UK government stated that decisions made by UK Parliament impacts British citizens who live overseas and so they should have a say in UK Parliamentary General Elections.

It specifically mentions decisions made surrounding foreign policy, defence, immigration, pensions and trade deals.

But issues such as NHS access, UK university fees, nationality and border measures are also of huge significance to Britons living abroad.

Lord True, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, said previously: “In an increasingly global and connected world, most British citizens living overseas retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. 

“Many still have family here, have a history of hard work in the UK behind them, and some have even fought for our country.

“These measures support our vision for a truly Global Britain, opening up our democracy to British citizens living overseas who deserve to have their voices heard in our Parliament, no matter where they choose to live.”

More could  be done for Brits abroad

Many other countries already give their overseas nationals the right to vote for life and some, including France, have MPs dedicated to representing nationals who live overseas.

But an amendment put forward by the Lib Dem party to give Britons abroad MPs was rejected.

The Lib Dems also criticised the British government for failing to streamline the voting process to make it easier for Britons to vote from abroad. The government rejected a call to move to electronic voting for those overseas to replace postal voting.

Member comments

  1. “Unfortunately this comes too late for many Brits abroad to get a say in the thing that has had the biggest impact on their lives – Brexit – but it’s better late than never.”

    No it’s really not . Brexit is a total unnecessary toxic mess and as a European resident i would have liked to have had a say. I have no interest in voting in a country i don’t live in. I would prefer to vote in France where the election process has an impact on my life.

  2. Don’t hold your breath. I just spoke with the Electoral Registration Office in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to the agent there, the law will only come into effect in June 2023. Make a note in your diary for next year. 😉

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BREXIT

‘Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed’ – How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

A new in-depth survey on British nationals living in the EU has revealed the impact that Brexit has had upon their lives, and their attitudes to their country of origin.

'Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed' - How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

The study, conducted by academics at Lancaster and Birmingham universities, provides a snapshot of how Brits in the EU live – their age, family, work and education – and how they feel about the UK in the six years since the Brexit vote.

Unsurprisingly, it revealed that Brexit has had a major practical impact on the lives of Brits living in the EU – who are now subject to third-country rules and require residency cards or visas and face restrictions on voting and onward movement within the EU.

But the survey’s 1,328 respondents were also asked about their emotions towards the country of their birth.

Eighty percent of respondents said it had changed their feelings towards the UK.

A British woman living in Norway said she felt: “Deep, deep shame. Embarrassed to be British, ashamed that I didn’t try hard enough, or appreciate my EU citizenship.”

“Since Brexit I am disappointed in the UK. I am worried, and no longer feel like I have the same affinity for the country. It’s a shame because I love ‘home’ but the country feels so polarised,” added a British woman in her 30s living in Denmark.

An Austrian resident with dual British-Irish nationality said: “I feel disconnected, like it’s a completely different country from how I left it.

“So much so I feel more connected with my second nationality (Irish) despite the fact I never grew up in Ireland. It’s embarrassing what’s happened in the UK and what continues to happen. It’s like watching a house on fire from afar.”

The experience of living abroad during the pandemic also affected people’s feelings towards the UK, with 43 percent of people saying the UK’s handling of the Covid crisis affected their feelings towards the county.

A British woman in her 50s living in Spain said: “It was shambolic. Too late, too little, mixed messaging, lack of seriousness. So many deaths after what should have been a head start.”

A British man living in Greece described it simply as “a shit show”.

In addition to the Brexit effect, the survey also provided interesting and detailed data on the lives and profiles of Brits who live in the EU;

  • 69 percent had degree-level education
  • 77 percent worked in a professional or managerial role
  • 53 percent are of working age
  • 59 percent have been living in their country of residence for more than five years
  • 78 percent said it was very unlikely that they would move countries in the next five years 
  • The most common reasons for moving country were retirement (40 percent), family reasons (35 percent) and work (30 percent)

Almost all respondents said that Brexit had impacted their lives, with the loss of freedom of movement being the most common effect mentioned.

One man said: “My original plan (pre-2016) was to move to France on retirement, due in 2026. Brexit caused me to move sooner, in order to retain my European citizenship rights. The pandemic helped (indirectly) in that I got locked down in France in 2020, which enabled me to earn residence under the pre-Brexit rules. I had been talking to my employer about doing something similar before the pandemic broke.”

“I moved to France in 2020 in order to protect my right to live and work in France post-Brexit. My migration is 100 percent a result of Brexit,” said one American-British dual national.

Other respondents talked about the post-Brexit admin necessary to gain residency status in their country, financial losses due to the weakening of the pound against the euro and the loss on onward freedom of movement – meaning that Brits resident in one EU country no longer have the right to move to another.

The report also highlighted that only 60 percent of respondents had changed their legal status by security residency since Brexit.

For some Brits in the EU this is not necessary if they already have citizenship of their country of residence (or another EU country such as Ireland) but the report’s author highlighted that: “It may also offer an early indicator that within this population there are some who may find themselves without legal residence status, with consequences in the future for their right to residence, and access to healthcare, welfare and work (among other services).”

READ ALSO What to do if you have missed the Brexit deadline in France 

In total 42 percent of respondents were completely disenfranchised – the 15-year rule means they can no longer vote in the UK, while the loss of EU citizenship means that they cannot vote in European or local elections in their country of residence.

The British government has recently announced the ending of the 15-year rule, giving voting rights to all UK nationals, no matter how long they live outside the UK. 

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