‘It’s better than no deal’: Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May wins Brexit vote?

A momentous vote will take place in the British parliament on Tuesday when Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal is put to an MPs vote. British citizens living in Europe are torn over whether or not to back the agreement that would preserve most of their rights, but confirm the UK's exit from the EU.

'It's better than no deal': Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May wins Brexit vote?
British MPs in the House of Commons await the result of crucial vote linked to Brexit. Photo: AFP

On Tuesday, the House of Commons, the UK’s lower house, will vote on what is probably the most important parliamentary vote in Britain this century.

If MPs approve Theresa May’s 585-page Brexit deal, the terms of Britain’s future relationship with the EU will have been broadly defined.

In such a scenario, May’s Conservative government could yet survive to lead the next phase of negotiations with the bloc after March 2019 and Brits in the EU will have retained most of the rights they currently enjoy, although some crucial ones will be lost.

Should parliament reject the terms of the deal, four potential outcomes look likely. The prime minister could try and negotiate a new deal (unlikely, given that the EU has said this is not an option); the UK electorate could be given a second chance to vote on Brexit (broadly termed a People’s Vote); or Britain could leave the EU without a deal on March 29th. A rejection of the deal could also lead to a general election in the UK.

While PM Theresa May doesn't appear to have enough support it's still impossible to tell which way the vote will go because of the division among political parties in Westminster.

Britons living in the European Union, among those groups most affected by Brexit, are equally split about whether to support the deal. 

READ ALSO: 'You are a priority': France tries to reassure Britons over Brexit

If the Withdrawal Agreement is approved, the rights of Brits to remain indefinitely in their host country would be secured, as would their index-linked pensions, healthcare cover and the right to study.

But those rights would be landlocked: Brits in the EU now look certain to lose the right to onward freedom of movement throughout the bloc.

Their right to vote in local elections also hangs in the balance. That is why many Brits are still hoping for a People’s Vote and potentially no Brexit at all.

So what should they wish for when the result of the MPs vote is announced on December 11th?

“I'm sure everyone realises that it's an impossible choice,” said Kalba Meadows, chair of Remain in France Together (RIFT) – the French branch of British in Europe, the grassroots pan-European campaign group for the rights of Brits in Europe.

“Vote for, and it preserves most of our rights under the Withdrawal Agreement – but …. Vote against, and you risk a no deal. Everyone will have a different view on that. It's a moral maze, and for us the question of voting for or against the deal should be a kind of 'free vote', up to each member,” added Meadows.

And Britons living in the EU were certainly making up their own minds. The fact they will lose onward free movement if the deal goes through was the reason many hope it gets voted down.

June, a retired Briton who has been living in Germany for more than a decade said: “Many British in the EU have cross-border jobs. This means being in two EU countries on a regular basis. Freedom of movement is essential.”

Jan Glover, a Briton living in France for the last 11 years agrees.

“The Withdrawal Agreement also has a lot of uncertainty and total lack of guarantees for UK citizens living in the EU who rely on freedom of movement to work and also for those with businesses who rely on cross border services arrangements. That makes Mrs May's deal a very bad one,” Glover told The Local.

Other Brits however are wary of the deal being rejected, seeing it as the best of all evils.

READ ALSO: Theresa May blasted for lauding the end of free movement for Britons across EU

“If there is going to be a Brexit then for us UK citizens living in the EU May's deal is a good one,” said Robert Neil, a British resident of Crete, Greece. “It has lots of certainty and guarantees unlike a no deal. A no deal could be a disaster.”

Others see rejecting the deal as the first step towards positive change.

“No deal will hurt a lot of people, but it will be short and sharp and will precipitate change,” Jez Thomas, a Briton based in Brussels, told The Local.

Paul Hearn, a Briton based in France said: “My hope is that Parliament will stop Brexit, soon after voting against the proposed deal, adding that “a People’s Vote is the only fallback position.” Hearn condemns the binary choice being offered to the UK’s parliament.

Clarissa Killwick, a founding member of Brexpats Hear Our Voice and a member of British in Italy, agrees Brits are essentially caught between a rock and a hard place.

“I see ‘no deal’ as the worst possible scenario, and then any kind of deal as the second worst scenario,” Killwick, who would prefer a second referendum, told The Local.

Yet she warns that a People’s Vote could also be a source of frustration for many Britons in Europe given that many would be excluded from the vote, as they were in the first referendum.

As the law currently stands, British citizens who have been resident outside of the UK for longer than 15 years are no longer eligible to vote – they are disenfranchised.

“I think it would be totally tragic for the UK to go ahead with this without an opportunity to reflect. A People's Vote would seem fair but once again many of us will most likely be disenfranchised because of the 15-year rule. I haven't heard any noises that EU citizens in the UK would be permitted to vote or 16 and 17-year-olds. So my fear is a People's Vote would not be democratic enough,” says Killwick.

The Overseas Electors Bill, known as the Vote for Life bill, is seeking to change this, but that amendment is unlikely to become law in time for the between 1.2 million and 3.6 million Brits in Europe to vote in any additional referendum on Brexit.

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In a recent poll of The Local's readers the vast majority of respondents favoured having a second referendum, believing it is the right thing to do given that voters now know what kind of Brexit is on the table.

But many are aware there was a risk of stirring up yet more division only to end up with the same result.

For the moment Britons across the EU can only watch on at the momentous event taking place in the UK, just like they have had to do since the shock referendum result.

READ MORE: 'Brits in France are victims of Brexit' – French senator vows to fight for UK citizens

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

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

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.