Brexit: Britons in Europe pin hopes on UK parliament as MPs to get vote on no-deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers on Wednesday they would be able to vote to block a no-deal Brexit as anxious Britons around the EU hope an effort to force the UK and EU to protect their citizens' rights succeeds.

Brexit: Britons in Europe pin hopes on UK parliament as MPs to get vote on no-deal
An amendment could help protect British nationals' rights in the EU. Photo: AFP

Theresa May told MPs on Wednesday they would get to vote on both a no-deal and extending article 50 if MPs fail to back her deal by March 12th.

“The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29th March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome,” said May.

If MPs reject leaving without a deal they will then be able to vote to extend Article 50, albeit by only a few months.

Given it appears there is a majority in parliament against the UK leaving without a deal, May's commitment should be positive news for Britons throughout the EU, whose futures would have been far more complicated in the event of a no-deal.

Britons had been watching Westminster closely given that Conservative MP Alberto Costa has tabled an amendment that would force British Prime Minister Theresa May to seek a deal with the EU to ring-fence the citizens' rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement before Brexit Day on March 29th.

If that deal is passed then at least most of the rights of British citizens in the EU and Europeans in the UK would be protected even if Britain crashes out of Europe without a deal.

For the move to succeed, Costa's amendment must first be selected for debate by the speaker. Although given it has already won the support of 130 lawmakers from all parties hopes are high that the amendment will be chosen among others.

That includes around 60 Conservative MPs including ardent Brexiteers like Jacob-Rees Mogg. And on Tuesday it emerged Labour MPs would back Costa's amendment.

Reports on Tuesday suggest MP Alberto Costa will likely be forced out of the Conservative party over his efforts to protect citizens' rights.

But he is adamant that something must be done.

“We have people getting job offers now for jobs next month and they have no idea what their rights are. It’s a farce. Enough is enough,” Costa said.

Campaign groups British in Europe and The3Million, which are leading the fight for citizens' rights in the EU and the UK have worked with Costa to win support for his amendment. Brits living in the EU have been encouraged to write to their MPs asking them to support the move if it comes to a vote.

Their message to MPs is 'it's time to stop using us as bargaining chips in negotiations'.

The citizens' rights part of the withdrawal agreement was agreed on in December 2017 and rubber stamped in March last year however it currently it would stand for nothing unless the overall withdrawal agreement is ratified by the British parliament.

While the citizens' rights part of the agreement ensures Britons can continue to live, work, retire in the EU and gain access to healthcare and uprated pensions it doesn't guarantee all the rights Britons in the EU currently enjoy such as onward freedom of movement.

European countries have moved to protect the rights of Britons in the event of a no-deal but the rights they would have are far less than those guaranteed in the withdrawal agreement.

If the amendment is passed there is still a long way to go. There is no guarantee Brussels would agree to ring-fence the citizens' rights deal and hasn't shown any great enthusiasm to do so up until now, despite persistent efforts from campaigners.

In her statement to MPs on Wednesday Prime Minister Theresa May said:  “A separate agreement for citizens’ rights is something the EU have been clear they do not have the legal authority for.”

“If it is not done in a Withdrawal Agreement, these issues become a matter for member states unless the EU were to agree a new mandate to take this forward.”

“At the very start of this process the UK sought to separate out this issue, but that was something which the EU has been consistent on.”

“I urge all EU countries to make this guarantee and end the uncertainty for these 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.