How our meeting with Jeremy Corbyn in Madrid led to a victory for Britons across the EU

British in Europe's Michael Harris explains how a fleeting visit to Madrid by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to meet campaigners helped pave the way for a crucial amendment being backed by MPs in the UK parliament that could lead to the futures of Britons in Spain being secured whatever happens with Brexit.

How our meeting with Jeremy Corbyn in Madrid led to a victory for Britons across the EU
Michael Harris (L) and other members from Eurocitizen with Jeremy Corbyn and his team. Photo: MHarris / Eurocitizens

Four Britons were sitting in a slick conference room on the 18th floor of Torre Espacio on an eerily sunny Friday afternoon.

Far below us cars crawled up the Castellana full of madrileños making an early getaway to the Sierra.

We huddled at one end of the baronial table and fingered our information packs for the Labour team: factsheets about Britons in Spain; weighty British in Europe reports about healthcare, no-deal contingency plans and pension coordination; and the ace in our pack, a letter from the3million and British in Europe asking for support for the Costa amendment to ring-fence citizens rights.

Jeremy Corbyn and his team swept in and sat amongst us, two shadow ministers, an aide plus audiovisual guys.

Introductions and first-name terms established, we got down to business.

We received approving nods when we explained our objectives, to defend British and Spanish immigrants affected by Brexit and to fight intolerance against migrants.

We outlined the profile of Britons in Europe, 80 percent are of working age or below (60 percent in Spain), and attacked the hackneyed stereotypes of well-off retirees sitting around pools drinking gin.

We plugged the Costa amendment relentlessly. We underlined its importance for both UKinEU and EUinUK citizens as the only way to end the uncertainty faced by citizens, as a no-deal Brexit becomes the default option.

Only an international treaty can give security to us and to EU citizens, given the Home Office's record. Corbyn replied that he was “very sympathetic”, was “completely behind us” and was “disgusted about how citizens have been used in the deal/no-deal tussle”. He would consult party whips and get back to us.   

We moved onto issues in the UK government's gift: the enshrining of EUinUK rights in primary legislation and its impact on reciprocity for us, automatic pensions uprating, home university fees, votes for life and the rights of returning Britons to bring back close family.

We then briefed Corbyn for his meeting with Sánchez. We explained the horror of a no deal and the impact of an end to S1 healthcare and social security coordination on UK pensioners in Spain.

The Labour team were genuinely shocked when we showed them harrowing case studies and Corbyn said that he was “committed to stopping a no deal”. Finally, we asked him to bring up with Sánchez the issue of dual nationality for Britons in Spain, a case where reciprocity is not at work.

The next day we were elated to receive an email confirming Labour support for the Costa amendment. On Wednesday evening the motion was passed unanimously in the Commons.

Now Theresa May has a mandate to go back to Brussels to propose, for once in her life, something simple, straightforward and agreed on by Parliament: to ring-fence our rights and to finally take citizens off the bargaining table. That should have been done two years ago, but better late than never.

Michael Harris is the chair of EuroCitizens and a steering group member of British in Europe.


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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.