OPINION: How do you compensate for the sleepless nights from living in Brexit limbo?

With news that Brits across Spain could have a case to sue the UK government for loss of rights, campaigner Sue Wilson asks "how do you compensate over a million people for sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, physical and mental health problems and three years of living in limbo?"

OPINION: How do you compensate for the sleepless nights from living in Brexit limbo?
Photo: AFP

When I said last week that the mood of Brits in Europe had lifted, following events in Westminster, I may have been a bit premature. Despite it being widely predicted that Boris Johnson would become the new prime minister, it still left a nasty taste when it actually happened, especially following the appointment of such a right-wing cabinet.

Throughout the Conservative leadership campaign, both candidates – but especially Johnson – ratcheted up their no-deal rhetoric. Despite having no mandate for a no-deal Brexit, and UK parliament repeatedly demonstrating that it won’t support no-deal, it is still a scary scenario, no matter how unlikely.

Unsurprisingly, many Brits living in the EU are again wondering what impact no-deal would have on our rights and freedoms – those rights associated with our EU membership. The topics haven’t changed – whether it’s healthcare or pensions for retirees, recognition of qualifications for those in work, or freedom of movement for us all. We treasure these rights and nobody wants to see them removed or downgraded.


On July 19th, a cross-party emergency task force from Westminster – including Alberto Costa (Conservative), Layla Moran (LibDem) and Baroness Hayter (Labour) – met with Michel Barnier in Brussels to discuss the protection of our rights in the event of Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit. They were joined by delegates from British in Europe and the 3Million, representing the #the5Million EU and British citizens who would be most affected. 

Costa said at the meeting: “We may not all agree on Brexit, but there is unanimity in parliament that the rights of five million citizens must come first.”

In a further development last week, Costa – who resigned from the government earlier this year over this issue – wrote to Johnson. He advised that Brits across Europe would be entitled to sue the UK government for the loss of their rights, should the prime minister trigger a no-deal Brexit. Costa warned Johnson that failure to enshrine the rights of EU citizens living in the UK before October 31th would result in Brits in the EU being penalised. Costa repeated that message on Thursday, when Johnson appeared before the House of Commons for the first time to make a statement and answer questions.

While governments across Europe, Spain included, have put together no-deal contingency plans to protect our rights to healthcare, pension contributions and even long-term residency, those governments have stated categorically that the UK government must reciprocate. Only the protection of European citizens in the UK will allow for the arrangements by the EU27 to be activated.

Costa concluded in his letter: “No peacetime British government has ever abrogated the rights enjoyed by over a million of its own citizens overnight. As a former UK government lawyer, I can reasonably foresee an enormous unprecedented amount of litigation raised by British citizens. This would undoubtedly result in a severe challenge to the stability of your government.” 

He added that, at the very least, the government should agree to underwrite any of our financial losses, should our rights, such as free healthcare, be removed.

Personally, I don’t think it will come to that. I’ve never believed that no-deal was more than a negotiating tool, and a bad one at that. Even if the new government has a no-deal Brexit agenda, it doesn’t change the parliamentary arithmetic. A drive towards a no-deal Brexit by our new prime minister will be doomed to failure.

Several former Conservative ministers – including former Chancellor Phillip Hammond and former Deputy Prime Minister, David Liddington – resigned over the prospect of a damaging no-deal Brexit, and more could follow. There’s even talk of up to six Conservative MPs defecting to the Liberal Democrats. The Tories’ tiny majority could, therefore, disappear altogether. When Johnson adopts his post in number 10 after the summer recess, he could be the leader of a minority, not a majority, government.

Whatever Johnson says – and I think large doses of salt will be required all round – it’s good to know that, regardless of party affiliation, MPs across Westminster want our rights and freedoms to be protected. We’ll keep lobbying both houses of parliament to honour their promises: to put citizens’ rights at the top of the political agenda.

In his first speech as prime minister, Johnson at least mentioned the three million-plus EU citizens in the UK, promising the “absolute certainty of the right to live and remain”. He failed to mention that they would have to apply for “settled status”, and that applications aren’t guaranteed to be accepted. When pushed, Number 10 failed to confirm that any new legislation enshrining the rights of EU citizens would be forthcoming, or was even necessary. It was no surprise to us that we Brits in the EU weren’t even mentioned.

When we moved our lives and families here to Spain in good faith, we expected that the benefits and opportunities afforded to us by EU membership were for life, and for the next generation.

We may not have appreciated those rights and freedoms as much as we should have before June 2016, but we certainly don’t take them for granted now. We’ll keep fighting for our rights until this whole sorry Brexit business is over. 

I’m not anticipating taking the UK government to court to compensate for our losses, as a no-deal Brexit isn’t going to happen. In any case, how do you compensate over a million people for sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, physical and mental health problems and three years of living in limbo?

We’re going to keep our rights and freedoms in the only way possible. We’re not leaving the EU!

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.