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BREXIT

OPINION: British citizens living in limbo over Brexit have finally had their patience rewarded

Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain takes a look at events in Westminister and why it bodes well for British citizens living in limbo over Brexit.

OPINION: British citizens living in limbo over Brexit have finally had their patience rewarded
Leadership contender Boris Johnson holds up kipper fish in plastic packaging as he speaks at the final Conservative Party leadership election hustings in London. Photo: AFP

Over recent weeks, many British citizens living in Spain, who are worried about Brexit, have been increasingly concerned about political events in the UK. With the two Conservative leadership candidates, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, hyping their no-deal Brexit rhetoric to the max, and the media over-playing a whole host of no-deal scenarios, it’s no surprise that many have been losing sleep.

However, the events of last week saw a significant change in our collective mood. The tide has finally turned.

It was a busy week in both Westminster and Brussels, with the appointment of the new President of the European Commission, Theresa May’s last speech as Prime Minister, and the last of the Tory leadership contest hustings. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility released its latest, damning report, stating that the UK risks a ‘full-blown’ recession with a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, Chancellor Phillip Hammond admitted to being “terrified” by Brexiter claims concerning a no-deal Brexit boost to the economy.

Then there was a revealing expose screened by BBC Panorama, ‘Britain’s Brexit Crisis’, that suggested even the Beeb is experiencing a change of mood and tone, perhaps finally feeling it might have backed the wrong horse.

However, the most significant of last week’s events was Thursday’s vote by the House of Commons, to prevent the new British prime minister from proroguing parliament.

The day before, a House of Lords amendment to the Northern Ireland bill had passed by a significant majority. The amendment called for parliament to regularly report on its progress with regard to the forming of an executive in Stormont. A similar amendment had recently been defeated in the House of Commons, but the Lords were determined to prevent the new PM from shutting down parliament ahead of the October 31st Brexit deadline. If the Lords amendment proved successful, this would allow the House of Commons a second bite of the cherry.

The vote in the Commons was widely expected to be a close call, with speculation that some Conservative ministers might rebel against the government. When the result emerged, showing a significant defeat for Theresa May, despite a 3-line whip, the change in mood from Bremain members was palpable.

For many months, British citizens living in limbo over Brexit have been hoping for MPs – especially Conservatives – to stand up and be counted. On Thursday our patience was finally rewarded. Not only did 30 Conservative MPs defy the whip and abstain – including Chancellor Hammond and cabinet ministers, David Gauke, Greg Clarke and Rory Stewart – but 17 Conservatives voted in favour of Hilary Benn and Alastair Burt’s amendment.

Even the Brits amongst us who had resigned themselves to a hard Brexit have since expressed feelings of hope. The scale of the government’s defeat was seen as highly significant and a victory for common sense. Although many long ago abandoned the idea of parliament coming to our rescue, many Brits now believe a new way forward is possible.

Unsurprisingly, Brexiters were outraged by the result, accusing their colleagues of a betrayal of the British public and the referendum result. Without a hint of irony, they complained that MPs had voted to ensure the retention of parliamentary sovereignty – a key demand of their own Leave campaign!

While the success of the amendment doesn’t prevent a no-deal Brexit, it does make it more difficult. Yet again, it proves that there is no majority in parliament for a damaging no-deal Brexit. 

For many Conservative rebels, this was the first time they had ever voted against their own government. One minister, Margot James, even resigned in order to do so. Further resignations are anticipated next week, if Boris Johnson becomes the new leader, as expected.

Having crossed the line, and voted against the wishes of the government, Conservative MPs will in future find it easier to oppose the extreme Brexit plans favoured by Johnson, the Brexiters and Conservative party members. As one first-time rebel MP said, they might even get a taste for it!

We have long hoped and prayed for MPs to put country before party. Many have a long way to go, but the tide has turned.

After the success of his amendment, Hilary Benn said that the House of Commons had sent a message to the new prime minister. He commented: “If you think you can lock the doors of the chamber and expect us all to go away until October 31st has come and gone, well it isn’t going to happen. The public would expect us to be here doing our job, and that is what we intend to do.”

Brits throughout Europe are grateful to those who stood up to be counted. We now hope that parliament really can “take back control”. That’s what we voted for, apparently!

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

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BRITS IN EUROPE

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.

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