‘Time to think about the 5 million in limbo’: UK parliament votes to delay Brexit

Lawmakers in London voted to delay Brexit on Thursday evening by a majority of 210 to mark the end of three days of fraught debates and votes in which PM Theresa May's deal was firmly rejected as was a no-deal Brexit.

'Time to think about the 5 million in limbo': UK parliament votes to delay Brexit
How long left? Photo: Shebeko/Depositphotos

A majority of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK's lower house voted to delay Brexit on Thursday and seek an extension to Article 50 from the EU.

The motion to seek an extension to Article 50 was approved by a majority of 210 MPs. It calls for Theresa May to seek an extension until June 30th 2019 if a deal is approved before March 20th. But the motion also acknowledges that a longer extension may need to be justified if the UK parliament cannot agree on the deal before the EU Council summit on March 21st. 

The lower house also voted on several amendments. Theresa May survived an attempt for MPs to set the schedule for future debates and talks on Brexit, and wrestle control of the process from her hands, by a majority of only two (312 ayes, 314 noes).

An amendment to hold a second referendum was also defeated by a much wider majority of 229.

Some Labour MPs wrote an open letter arguing why they were abstaining even though they support a second referendum “because it isn't the right time.” They hope to be able to achieve a second referendum via other means in parliament. 

While amendments are not legally binding, they offer a barometer of sentiment among MPs. The fact that 332 voted against a second referendum would constitute a majority even if Labour had voted, suggesting more than half of parliamentarians are not in favour of giving the British public a final say on Brexit. 

Desires are nourished by delays?

Senior EU figures have expressed differing positions on granting an extension to Article 50, the clause in the Lisbon Treaty which envisages a two-year window for member states leaving the bloc to agree a framework for future cooperation with the Union. 

Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council – the political body where ministers from the EU meet to agree policy – suggested he was open to granting the UK an extension.

But opposing views in the EU to delaying Brexit were made evident in a tweet by Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit coordinator at the EU parliament, in which the Belgian MEP appeared to disagree with Tusk.

“Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation,” tweeted Verhofstadt.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has made clear he wants Brexit out of the way before European parliamentary elections in late May.

“I would like to stress that the United Kingdom's withdrawal should be complete before the European elections that will take place between 23-26 May,” wrote Juncker in a letter to EU Council President Tusk on March 11th. 

EU Brexit fatigue

The issue of an extension has also sewn divisions among member states, fracturing the united front the EU27 is keen to maintain. French President Emmanuel Macron said the Withdrawal Agreement could not be renegotiated but showed lukewarm signs that he was open to an extension.

Many EU leaders see an extension as justified only if the UK can present a viable plan as to how it will use the time to dig itself out of the Brexit quagmire.

“If the British need more time, we will examine a request for an extension — if it is justified by new choices on the part of the British,” said President Macron. 

READ ALSO: Macron says Brexit withdrawal deal not 'negotiable'

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte echoed Macron's thoughts. 

Chief EU Negotiator Michel Barnier isn't keen on an extension and feels his, and the EU's work, has been done. 

“Prolong this negotiation, to do what?” Barnier asked MEPs at the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg on the morning of Wednesday March 13th. “The negotiation on article 50 is over. We have a treaty. It is here,” he added. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, like EU Commission President Juncker, has previously suggested a 55 day extension to Article 50 until the beginning of EU parliamentary elections would be “very easy.” Any extension beyond May 22nd would mean the UK would have to hold EU parliamentary elections, Juncker has stated. 

The final countdown

With the next EU Council summit a week away – March 21-22 – Theresa May  and her negotiators now have a week to try and convince her European counterparts to grant an extension and avoid a cliff-edge no-deal exit on March 29th.

The EU's apparent reluctance to unanimously agree to an extension may just be posturing. Brexit has dragged on for nearly three years, yet as a former senior EU Commission official recently told told The Local “twenty four hours is a long time in Brexit politics.” 

Rights advocacy group British in Europe, formed in 2016 to defend the rights of UK nationals in the EU caught on the front lines of Brexit, repeated its call for the rights of 3.6 million EU nationals in the UK and 1.2 million UK nationals in the EU to be ring-fenced. 

READ MORE: 'We choose France': Dordogne Brits still in Brexit limbo as clock ticks down


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.