OPINION: Brits in Spain must be ready to use their vote (if they have one)

For too long, the voices of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU – two groups deeply affected by Brexit – have been silenced, ignored or brushed aside, insists Bremain in Spain's Sue Wilson.

OPINION: Brits in Spain must be ready to use their vote (if they have one)
Photo: AFP

The current battle for the keys of No. 10 Downing Street cannot have escaped many people’s attention. For disenfranchised Brits living overseas, the fact that a new Prime Minister is being chosen by a tiny percentage of the population seems par for the course. It serves to remind us that decisions are being taken without our involvement, though on this occasion, most of the British public are likewise excluded.

British citizens who have exercised their freedom of movement rights are still being denied a vote and a voice. Those who have lived in Europe for more than 15 years have had their democratic voting rights removed, despite Conservative government manifesto pledges to restore those rights. The Overseas Electors Bill is now dead in the water – it remains to be seen whether it might be resurrected when a new government is formed.

During the recent European elections, the list of disenfranchised Brits grew. Failures in the postal vote system prevented many who were legally entitled to vote from doing so. Many UK local councils failed to prepare adequately for overseas postal voting, sending out ballot papers too late or not at all.

As well as British citizens being affected, it appears that around a million EU citizens resident in the UK were also unable to vote. This was the first opportunity afforded to EU citizens to express themselves at the ballot box, as they were ineligible to vote in the Brexit referendum. The resulting situation was an insult and a scandal.

Many British MPs immediately took up the cause, as the #deniedmyvote hashtag trended on Twitter. The campaign to obtain answers has largely been negated by the UK government, leading some to question whether the denial of votes was deliberate.

LibDem spokesperson for Brexit, Tom Brake MP, said the government had showed “shocking complacency”. As pointed out by Labour MP, Annaliese Dodds, following the last European Elections, the Electoral Commission warned the government to improve the voting process for EU citizens – a warning that was clearly ignored. A group of 10 British MEPs also wrote to the Electoral Commission asking for any postal ballots from Brits abroad, received after the deadline, to be included in the vote count. This was to no avail.

Guy Verhofstadt, currently a candidate for the EU’s top job, raised the issue at the end of May, demanding an immediate investigation. In his role as chair of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Committee, he is now heading an enquiry. The committee is examining evidence claiming to demonstrate “that the UK government failed to implement reforms to the voter registration procedure following a similar ‘mass disenfranchisement’ of EU citizens at the previous European elections in 2014”.

The committee aims to establish whether the UK government “deliberately prevented” EU citizens from participating in the EU elections. One of the six committee members, MEP Danuta Hubner, said the protection of that right is “of major importance as an expression of the principle of representative democracy”. The committee will also consider whether the lack of time given to EU citizens in the UK to register to vote was potentially a violation of European law.

The response of the European Parliament about the protection of EU citizens’ voting rights – Brits included – has been swift, supportive and compassionate. In comparison, responses from the British government have been disappointing.

Brits in Spain with no voting rights have endured decisions being taken that affect their lives, on which they’ve had no say. Any Brit denied a vote in the European elections, because of the incompetence or laziness of their local council, was justifiably angry and frustrated.

Whatever the results of the European Parliament investigations into the ‘Denied My Vote’ scandal, those of us fortunate enough to have voting rights must use them.

With the current state of British politics, and the impossibility of the Brexit impasse being resolved any time soon, we must prepare for an increasingly likely snap general election. That means double-checking you’re registered to vote in your last UK constituency.

I recommend you don’t rely on the postal system, which has proved unreliable, and apply for a proxy vote instead. Ideally, your proxy will be someone you know, but it doesn’t have to be. Please check the Bremain in Spain website for full details and to download the relevant form here

For too long, the voices of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU – two groups deeply affected by Brexit – have been silenced, ignored or brushed aside. Our lives have been turned upside down, inside out and taken over. Brexit has stolen our equilibrium, our sense of identity, our peace of mind and, in my case, my retirement and a good chunk of my meagre state pension.

Thankfully, I still have my vote and a reliable proxy. Make sure you’re ready too!  If you don’t have a vote, I recommend frequently bothering your ex-MP. There’s more than one way to make your voice heard. Feel free to shout!

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why Boris could be our best bet to stop Brexit 

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.