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Brits: don’t let bumbling councils steal your vote

British electoral authorities have a terrible record when it comes to processing overseas ballots. Laura Shields says Brits abroad need to pile on the pressure - now.

Brits: don't let bumbling councils steal your vote
A pro-EU campaigner hands out leaflets in London. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP
Councils in the UK have form on messing up when it comes to expat voter registration. 
 
I have personally heard stories of Brits abroad who received their postal ballots weeks after last year’s British General Election because the relevant council not only sent the papers out just four days before the election but also marked overseas post with second class UK stamps. I have also heard how authorised proxies were denied the right to vote on behalf of overseas friends or relatives because the polling station had no record of the request being made. Other Brits living in Portugal and wishing to vote in the forthcoming EU Referendum have had no acknowledgment that their registration request has even been received.
 
Meanwhile, the 16th May  ‘deadline’ for expats to register to vote in the Referendum is looming.
 
This is not about whether you think it’s right that Brits abroad should retain voting rights in the UK. That argument is still being thrashed out as I type. And not all councils are inefficient about registration: many do a very good job with few resources.  Rather, this is about making the current system work, at least for those who are still eligible. 
 
So what’s to be done? Quite simply, if you want to vote in the EU Referendum you should check in with your local council straight away (and certainly before the 16th May deadline).  If you haven’t registered to vote (and have been registered in the UK within the past 15 years), you should do so now, ideally by proxy or postal vote (although these are far less reliable).  If you’ve picked the postal vote option, you should also ask when the papers will be sent out and keep in touch to make sure you receive them in good time. 
 
Crucially, the Electoral Commission says Brits abroad don't need to re-register every year, but they do need to declare with their local authority that they are still eligible to vote. This means that all Brits abroad who want to vote on 23rd June should contact their local authority to check if they are still considered eligible by them. Each local authority has different rules for making a declaration. Some accept a phone call, others require letters, formal proof etc. In practical terms this means if a local authority has not proactively sought to check, you will likely not be able to vote, until you resubmit a declaration.
 
Unlike other elections, in the case of the EU Referendum, every vote really does count. The polls show those wishing Britain to 'Remain' and those wanting us to 'Leave' are level-pegging again. So Brits abroad who want to vote need to make sure that we keep the pressure up to exercise our democratic rights. 
 
We can’t take anything for granted. Particularly, not the post.
 
Laura Shields is Campaign Spokesperson for Brits Abroad: Yes to Europe, a non-partisan 'get out the vote' initiative managed by the Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats. The campaign has a Facebook page with up-to-date news about the debate. More information on the Brussels and Europe Lib Dems referendum campaign and practical advice about voting can be found by clicking here.

BREXIT

Spain-UK driving licence deal ‘likely by end of July’, says British Ambassador

The British Ambassador to Spain on Friday shared his latest update on the driving licence negotiations between the UK and Spain, indicating a possible agreement to have affected drivers back on the road by the end of July 2022.

Spain-UK driving licence deal 'likely by end of July', says British Ambassador

Another week, another update on the UK driving licence debacle in Spain. This time nonetheless, there’s perhaps a bit more reason for hope. 

In his weekly Facebook video update, British ambassador to Spain HMA Hugh Elliott started off with words that no doubt made the potentially thousands of UK licence holders in Spain who haven’t been able to drive for the past 50 days despair that bit further.

“We’re continuing to work every day on this,” Elliott said. “I know what you want to know is exactly when you’re going to be able to drive again and I still cannot give you a precise date I’m afraid”.

However, the ambassador was willing to share some insight into what they’ve “been doing in the negotiations”, “what the next steps we’re taking are” and, crucially, “what sort of timescale we’re talking about”. 

“The good news is that the UK and Spain are now in agreement on the core issues that have been problematic and we’re now very close to finalising the actual text of the agreement,” he explained.

“Once that’s happened, possibly as early as next week, there are various legal clearances, language checks and final political approvals that we and the Spanish need to go through,” he added. 

“The processes are not entirely in UK hands, which is partly why I can’t be more definitive and I can’t make promises. But our best estimate is that we’re looking at a date of having you back on the road around the end of July,” he stated.

As this is an international treaty, there are certain procedures they have to go through, Elliott pointed out, including the need for formal approval from the Spanish cabinet (Council of Ministers).

What remains unclear is whether Spanish authorities will treat this as a matter of urgency, and whether it will need further approval in the Spanish Parliament for the law to come into effect, as is usually the case in Spain (something which takes several weeks if not months).

Elliott acknowledged that even though a deal is likely weeks away, many have been facing great difficulties as a result of their inability to drive in Spain.

READ ALSO – ‘An avoidable nightmare’: How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle

The announcement comes after at least 18 months of negotiations and 4 extensions of the validity of UK licences granted by Spanish authorities, as well as countless updates by the British Embassy in Madrid. 

British residents in Spain have had mixed reactions to this latest June 17th update.

While many of the drivers affected remain very angry about the ongoing delay and don’t understand why there can’t be another extension which allows them to drive while the deal is finalised, others continue to show little sympathy for those in limbo, arguing that they should have registered to exchange their licence before the 2021 deadline.

There is evidence that many have fallen between the cracks through no fault of their own, and for those who rely on their cars to live a normal life in Spain (rural or another setting), the situation is getting desperate and there is a lot of anger.

Since May 1st 2022, thousands of UK licence holders who’ve resided in Spain for six months or more have been unable to drive with their UK licences, even though the vast majority of EU nations have long struck deals with the UK post-Brexit for the easy exchange of driving licences. 

They are a “minority” of the 407,000 UK nationals who are officially residents in 2022, as many of them did exchange their licence for a Spanish one before the deadline at the end of 2020 as advised. 

If a deal is indeed finalised by the end of July, they will have been unable to drive in Spain for almost three months.

The British Embassy in Madrid continues to advise residents who are unable to drive in Spain to explore local support options such as charities although Elliott did say “If you find yourself truly vulnerable or know somebody who is, do contact your local consulate”. 

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