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BREXIT

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One

In the first instalment of a three-part series investigating how different, often separate, campaign groups of Brits across the EU led to a pan-European campaign, we retraced the early steps of the Votes for Life movement. Which led us to a near-centenarian British war veteran in a quaint Italian coastal town.

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One
Harry Shindler reviews a document in his office and home in Porto d'Ascoli. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

Harry Shindler, 97, was part of the Allied landings in Anzio near Rome to liberate Italy from fascism in 1944. He eventually settled in the country, which he had first visited as a soldier, in 1982 with his wife and son. His campaign to get Brits abroad the vote has made him a legendary figure whose campaigning work inspired the citizens’ rights group British in Europe.

“So many Brits abroad have gotten involved. They’re all coming together,” Harry Shindler told The Local at his home in Porto d’Ascoli, on the Adriatic coast in Italy.

Jane Golding joined the campaign for the so-called votes for life' bill in 2011. The Berlin-based lawyer and co-chair of British in Europe – the grassroots campaign to secure the rights of Brits living in the EU – credits Shindler’s work on the votes for life bill as the genesis of the pan-European British rights campaign, a first movement of its kind by Brits spread across Europe.

If the Overseas Electoral Bill becomes law it could bring up to five million Brits back into the voting framework in the UK. At the moment, Brits who have lived outside of the UK for 15 years lose the right to vote – they become disenfranchised. In such a scenario, they can no longer participate in parliamentary elections nor in people’s votes, such as the highly-divisive Brexit referendum.

The Overseas Electoral Bill aims to change that. It has already survived two readings in parliament and cross-examination in four sittings in the House of Commons. It faces the third, and crucial, reading before the House of Commons on January 25th. The largest obstacle after that would likely be minor revisions at the House of Lords. 

“This is the last hurdle at the Commons,” Harry Shindler, surrounded by memorabilia from a life few can expect to live, told The Local. Shindler has been lobbying for overseas Brits to be re-enfranchised since he found out he couldn’t vote in UK parliamentary elections in 1997. That didn’t sit lightly with the sharp and engaged war veteran.

The Italian dictionary Harry Shindler MBE bought in southern Italy in 1943 before landing in Anzio, to fight fascism, in 1944. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

“The war 70 years ago was about bringing back the right of people to vote,” says Harry, who is the star of an award-winning film (currently on the festival circuit) – My war is not over.

In the documentary by Italian director Bruno Bigoni, Shindler recounts how he acts upon requests, often from family members, to find British soldiers lost in the WW2 Italian campaign. 

His method involves tracking down what happened to British soldiers in regimental war diaries, where a day's warfare was recorded in an hour-by-hour log. That’s how Shindler found out the truth about Corporal Waters, father of Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. But that’s another story, documented in the book My war is not over by Italian journalist Marco Patucchi.

 
From a young age, this charming Londoner and colossal figure has chosen to engage in struggles. The campaigns that bear his mark are many: from lobbies for regulation of licensing houses, to defeating fascism or changing the British electoral system. In his office, one placard denotes he is a member of ANPI, the Italian partisan organisation. Another reminds visitors that Harry Shindler has been awarded the title Member of the British Empire (MBE); an honorary doctorate from the American University in Rome sits near a photo of Harry with Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. 
 

Harry Shindler and Roger Waters at a ceremony to commemorate the British soldiers who served in Italy in World War Two and whose resting place in Italy, as well as their fate, remains unknown. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Should the Overseas Electoral Bill be approved in its final sitting in the House of Commons next month, only the House of Lords will stand between potentially millions of Brits abroad being able to register for UK elections via the last constituency where they lived in the UK.

Shindler has been instrumental in getting the bill this far, yet the votes for life bill has its heroes across Europe. The late Brian Cave, who together with former Conservative party staffer Roger Boaden also worked on the campaign to get Brits in France the winter fuel allowance, is another “long-term campaigner”. Cave was involved in the early stages of the votes for live movement, Boaden tells The Local. 

READ ALSO: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Brian Cave authored a blog called Pensioners Debout in which he campaigned for many aspects affecting the lives of elderly British citizens in the EU, Boaden recalls of his friend who died in early 2018. “It's because of Brian that I got involved,” says Boaden. 

Boaden has been campaigning to ensure that pensioners in countries like France, Spain and Cyprus can receive the fuel allowance paid to economically vulnerable pensioners by the UK government. British pensioners who would normally be eligible for the allowance of between £100 and £300 (€110–330 approx) are denied the right in those countries based on studies by the Department for Working Pensions (DWP) that estimate the average winter temperatures in France are higher than in the UK.

Boaden, through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, has sought to prove that feasibility studies of the weather in some of those countries showed that certain areas were clearly colder than the UK. He claims the government manipulated the average temperatures in the UK and the affected countries, as well as the criteria for judging the UK hotter, than, say, France in winter.

 

Roger Boaden. Photo: ECREU. 

When the Brexit referendum happened in 2016, Boaden, Cave and others founded Expat Citizens Rights in the EU (ECREU), a group working on the rights of British citizens in France that counts 10,800 members.

“It was a natural evolution,” says Boaden. “We already had quite a lot of information on how people were suffering.” Across the EU, after the Brexit referendum, groups of Brits from different countries came together to form a movement of lawyers, spokespeople and grassroots campaigners. We'll be telling that chapter in Part Two of this story. 

One of the most unusual yet noteworthy facets of the volunteer movement of Brits lobbying EU28 governments to safeguard and ring-fence the rights of those on the front lines of Brexit, Brits in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, is the non-political aspect.

Harry Shindler is a lifelong member of the Labour party, the same party Jane Golding used to work for; Roger Boaden worked for the Conservatives for 30 years. Other core British in Europe staff worked for the Liberal Democrats.

“What’s important is that it’s not party political,” Harry Shindler tells the Local from his flat in the Italian municipality that has made him an honorary citizen. “I’m working with a lot of Conservatives even though I’m not one,” he added.

Harry Shindler at home in Italy. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Boaden says the votes for life campaign has been unique in its cross-party ability to get Brits across Europe on the same page on an issue.

“At the core is the need to scrap the 15-year rule for overseas voters and rightly ensure that this group can vote for life,” Glyn Davies, the MP who presented the Bill to Parliament in 2017, said in the House of Commons’ first of four sittings on the bill in October and November.

But the Overseas Electoral Bill also has its critics.

The Labour Party has taken a lukewarm, if not opposition, stance to the bill. “The Bill as it stands would demand a hugely complex administrative task of our electoral registration officers,” Christian Matheson, a Labour MP for the City of Chester, argued in the House of Commons. Matheson cited budget cuts as a further reason to avoid giving the electoral commission more work.

“They’re putting administration before the right of people to vote,” Shindler, who will be at the House of Commons for the final reading on January 25th, tells The Local.

“I pointed out to them that by the same argument a city could reach a point where they stop people voting because they don’t have enough money,” says Shindler.

Harry Shindler with his honorary doctorate from the American University of Rome. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

The votes for life campaign morphed into a broader movement in defence of the rights of citizens after June 23rd, 2016: the Brexit referendum.

What started with a handful of British campaigners has led to a powerful pan-European movement. That movement, under the leadership of the British in Europe umbrella group, is pushing to hold the British government, in light of Brexit, to account on the rights of British citizens living in Europe.

“The EU has given Europe 70 years of peace,” says Harry Shindler. He has been here for each one of them. And longer. Citing “dangerous” populists and the spectre of the 1930s looming over many parts of Europe, Shindler says the votes for life campaign is about “principle”.  

Part Two: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Part Three: How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe

BRITS IN EUROPE

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.

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