Spain and UK set to give each other’s residents post-Brexit voting rights in local elections

Madrid and London are finalising a bilateral agreement that will give British residents in Spain and Spanish residents in the UK the right to vote in post-Brexit local elections in the country they live in.

Spain and UK set to give each other's residents post-Brexit voting rights in local elections
Photos: AFP

Spain and Britain’s governments have decided to streamline a deal that will protect the rights of its expat citizens in either country post March 29th, the day the UK leaves the EU. 

The bilateral agreement will guarantee that Brits in Spain and Spaniards in the UK can continue to vote in local elections, or elecciones municipales as they are known in Spain.

Until now, Britain’s impending break-away from the EU was set to leave both groups without any voting rights in their country of residence, whereas as part of the bloc, registered residents even had the right to stand as candidates in local elections.

There are in fact currently 37 locally elected British town and city councillors in Spain, mostly in Comunidad Valenciana and Andalusia, the two Spanish regions with the highest number of British residents.

The current negotiation will ensure that the 280,000 Brits officially residing in Spain keep these two rights and will be able place their ballots – or stand – in Spain’s next local elections in May 2019.

That’s regardless of whether or not there’s a no-deal Brexit scenario which causes Brits to lose their EU rights as of March 30th 2019, rather than in December 2020, the month in which the transition breakaway period is scheduled to end in the event of a deal.

This deal is of course a reciprocal one which will be treated as an international treaty that has to be ratified by Spain and Britain’s parliaments.

According to leading Spanish daily El País, the agreement is being “negotiated at top speed” between May and Sánchez’s government but diplomatic sources did tell the paper it’s unlikely to be approved and ready in time for Spain’s local elections on May 26, 2019.

Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is therefore prepared for the agreement to come into action in a provisional sense as soon as the initial frame line is agreed upon.

Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell is also calling on the UK Embassy in Madrid to encourage the “several tens of thousands” of Brits in Spain who aren’t registered yet to do so in order to guarantee that they are protected by other contingency plans set to be rolled out including residency, health and work post Brexit in Spain.

For this the UK must deliver the same rights to the 115,000 Spaniards residing in “Gran Bretaña”.

Spain's local elections next May will determine which councillors are chosen in the country's 8,116 municipalities and what seats political parties hold in the 38 provincial councils.

The municipal elections will be held simultaneously with regional elections in most of Spain's autonomous communities. 


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.