OPINION: What’s so great about being a European?

Sue Wilson takes stock of what being European means to her, and to Bremain in Spain members.

OPINION: What's so great about being a European?
Photo: Sue Wilson / Bremain in Spain

On May 9th, Bremain in Spain celebrated Europe Day by taking a rare break from campaigning against Brexit. 70 years after the foundation of the Council of Europe, it seemed an appropriate occasion to give us all a day off from Brexit, and also to take stock.

We invited our 5,500+ Facebook group members to tell us why EU citizenship is important to them, and which benefits of EU membership they value the most.

Many members described benefits that affect the majority, while others talked about their own specific circumstances. We hadn’t anticipated receiving so many personal histories, many dating to the time before the UK joined the EU.

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As expected, peace across Europe was widely considered important, as was freedom – especially our own freedom of movement.

Sandra Stretton, a retiree based in La Linea, described travelling to many different European countries during her previous career and the joy of mixing with different nationalities and cultures, even if a language barrier existed. Today, Sandra is fluent in Spanish and is fully integrated into the Spanish community. Her disabled dog, Diva, is something of a local celebrity. Sandra says: “I will never forget those special memories, or how freedom of movement gave me the best education I could have wanted.”

Michael Soffe, a resident of Malaga, talked about the difficulties of finding a decent job in Spain before the UK joined the EU, because of the need for working visas. He was required to leave Spain every 90 days to have his passport stamped. He said: “I cannot express how proud I was when I gave my fingerprint at the local police station to receive my first residencia card. Being completely European gave me a sense of belonging and security.”

Spanish Bremain in Spain member, Ana Cavero, told the flipside of the story: how she could study in the UK through the Erasmus scheme, before taking an internship in Germany. Ana, who is now a permanent resident of the UK and a British citizen, said: “We should all be able to spend our lives wherever we are happiest. I’ve had so many great opportunities, being European, that I wouldn’t want a single young person to miss out.”

Karen Watling, from Torrevieja, expressed a sentiment that applies for many of us: “Europe Day – what does that mean to me? Everything! My life, my family, my all is in Europe.”

Speaking for myself, I was in London for Europe Day. I spent the evening on the annual Europe Day Boat Trip along the River Thames. It was a colourful affair. Passengers were supplied with flags for all European countries, as well as EU flags. Many were dressed in pro-EU blue and yellow outfits, and some were dressed as pirates. The on-board pirates included EU Supergirl, Madeleina Kay, who sang and played the guitar.

The cruise took us to the Houses of Parliament, where we participated in anti-Brexit chants, providing entertainment to passers-by.

Although I enjoyed celebrating Europe Day in the UK, our members’ moving Facebook posts made me want to return to my home, in Spain.

Whether EU membership benefits matter to us personally or collectively, our jobs, families, friends and lives are here in Spain. It’s a special place to call home, with many of the Spanish community welcoming us into their lives and considering us part of their European family.

I’m sure you’ll agree: that is really something to treasure and celebrate on Europe Day.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

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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.