Elections are looming in the UK and the political discourse is dominated by Brexit – but many of the people whose lives are most directly affected by Britain leaving the EU will not get to have their say.
The British government currently denies the vote to anyone who has lived out of the country for more than 15 years, meaning that thousands of Britons who live in France and elsewhere in Europe will have no voice on December 12th.
Many of the same people were also denied a vote in the crucial Brexit referendum in 2016, even when the result directly affected their lives. With December's election is being seen in some quarters as another public vote on Brexit, given the outcome will have a huge bearing on how if and how the UK exits the EU.
We asked Britons in Spain how to feels to lose their vote in the country of their birth.
Dozens responded and many pointed out that from a practical point of view, they still pay tax in the UK and are directly affected by UK government decisions.
Some 88 percent of respondents said Britons should never lose the vote no matter how long they have lived abroad. Under 12 percent agreed there should be a time limit after which they lose the vote.
The main source of frustration for disenfranchised voters was summed up in this one comment from Agnes Miller.
“I'm disenfranchised. It feels absolutely horrible. Extremely stressful. The rights of UK citizens living abroad matter not one jot to Brexit supporters and this election will decide our fate once again without giving us a say.”
Brexit is the gamechanger
She admitted that Brexit has altered her perception on the right to vote from abroad.
“I used to think that if I didn't pay taxes in the UK , then I shouldn't have a say in government,” confessed Miller who has lived in Alicante province for 31 years. But that has changed:
“Brexit has opened my eyes. My rights are being stripped away as a result of the referendum and I had absolutely no say. This is a violation of my human rights – it's simply wrong. I could also lose the only voice I have – the right to vote in EU and local Spanish elections. So no voice, no say in government spending, but I still retain all the obligations regarding taxation etc,” she said.
Michael Brown in Asturias where he has lived for 28 years agrees that it hasn’t always been important to him to have vote in the UK.
“In previous elections it has not bothered me that I could not vote in the UK. However, if I had the opportunity to vote in December I would, due to the effect Brexit may have on my future. A rather selfish view, in fact.”
Many respondents made the point that Brexit affects their lives more than those of British citizens in the UK yet they have no say.
Helen Johnston, who has lived in Spain for 21 years and has a home in Capellades, Catalonia states: “It is deeply distressing. Especially since the Brexit referendum, when British politics and policy have had a much more direct impact on me than they did before. I am relying on others to take my interests into account when they vote, but when I express an opinion on British politics I have been told more than once that I have no business doing so, precisely because I am not a British voter!”
Valerie Lawrence in Malaga agreed: “It’s infuriating as I am more adversely affected than any UK resident.”
Elaine Jones, who lives in Ronda, says the situation makes her very angry. “Brexit decisions are being taken which affect me more than people living in the UK. But l have no voice.”
‘No taxation without representation’
Many readers felt that regardless of the Brexit debate, those that pay taxes should maintain their right to vote.
Linda Stebbings who has lived in Andalucia for 15 years says she feels “absolutely gutted” and “completely abandoned”, for not having a vote.
“I am still a British Citizen and still have to pay my UK tax on my Government (not state) pension,” she stated.
Sharon Wade, who lives in Aragon, has lost her right to vote because she has been in Spain for 16 years. “There should be no time limit on voting. I am currently in no man’s land: without a right to vote in the UK or in Spain. I pay taxes so I am a stakeholder with no voice. I don’t know if I will have the right to vote in European elections after Brexit but understand that I will lose benefits (eg freedom of movement) even though I am paying into the EU via my taxes paid to the Spanish system. Once again, a contributor without a voice.”
For others, it was a simple matter of rights.
“If the UK Government can affect our rights, we must be allowed a voice,” insisted John Raymond Stock who points out that he lived in the UK for 61 years and paid taxes for 46 years before retiring to Spain 17 years ago.
Thomas Heaslewood, who has spent 19 years living on the Costa Blanca, said that as long as his pensions and healthcare policies are determined by the British government then he should have a right to vote.
“I feel annoyed at not having a vote on December 12th,” he said.
Many spoke of the anger and hurt at being “cut off”, “alienated”, “ignored” and “abandoned” by a country where they spent most of their working lives and to whom they paid their taxes like British citizens at home.
Gulian Griffin, from Muro de Alcoy said: “I feel angry and frustrated. No civilized country should disenfranchise their citizens, whether they live in the country or not.”
“I believe that most Brits abroad still have strong ties to the UK; family and friends, property and pensions etc as well as emotional ties,” explains Roy Thompson who has lived in Catalonia for 25 years. “This doesn't go away with time. It's immoral to remove the right to vote based on a time limit. Or would it be OK to say that you can't vote until you have lived as an adult in UK for 15 years? Of course not.”
Elisabeth Marye Knight who lives in L’Olleria, Valencia: “All British citizens, no matter where they live should retain their franchise for life. That is fair and non-discriminatory.”
Some respondents said their frustration was exacerbated by the fact citizens from commonwealth countries living in the UK can vote, but they can't.
“Having lived in the UK for 60 years, paid taxes and been politically active, I feel totally disenfranchised,” railed Laurie Attridge in Granada. “Not only do I feel that I have a right to vote I think that voting should be obligatory as in Australia.”
Of the dozens of responses we received, many chose to focus on the emotional impact of being denied a vote by the country of their birth.
“I remain a citizen of the UK with strong links to the UK no matter how long I've been away,” pointed out Steve Eleftheriou. “Many other countries continue to allow their citizens to vote independently of how long they've been living abroad. Furthermore, having been denied the right to vote in the 2016 EU referendum when my entire life is affected by the result – is frankly outrageous, apart from being completely undemocratic.”
“I feel complete impotency about not being able to decide the future of the UK staying in the EU when it affects me and my family so directly (as well as that of millions of other Brits all over Europe),” complained Carole Patton, who has had permanent residency in Spain since 1984.
Christine Jenvey, a resident in Mallorca for over two decades, says she has felt angry since being denied a vote in the referendum.
“Many people like me couldn't vote even though we have been so directly affected,” she said. “Since June 2016, we’ve been feeling like bargaining chips, losing 15-20 percent of our pensions due to exchange rate. Feeling of insecurity.”
Until Britain leaves the EU, British people who are permanent residents in Spain are entitled to vote in local elections and European elections.
But only those with Spanish citizenship are entitled to vote in regional or parliamentary elections.
Although anyone who has lived in Spain for at least ten years is entitled to apply for citizenship many British people living here have not because the process is long – there is a huge backlog – and requires renouncing British citizenship (at least in theory) because dual nationality isn’t allowed.
That means that thousands of Brits abroad have been left without a vote in any country.
Martin Roberts from Madrid summed it up: “Voting is the most basic right of citizenship in any self-respecting democracy, and should not be curtailed merely because of where someone chooses to reside, for that would violate another definition of a free society, which is freedom of movement.
“Currently, millions of British citizens have been stripped of voting rights, putting us on a par with convicts and the certifiably insane. This is not only unfair, but patently absurd.”
Conservative governments under both former PMs David Cameron and Theresa May promised to introduce a 'vote for life' for Brits abroad, but so far has not brought the bill before parliament.
It meant that tens of thousands of people were not able to vote in the closely fought Brexit referendum, which for many has turned their lives upside down.
Chris Dottie, from Barcelona says the disenfranchisement hurts, “especially in such politically critical times”.
“I feel criminally neglected,” he said. “It feels like party politics have won. The French Parliament has specific MP’s that represent their expats living in specific regions, representing their interests. Meanwhile, we are discarded for political expedience.”
Russ Lewis who lives in Girona, also thinks the Brits should take a lesson from the French system.. .
“Other countries, such as France not only give their expatriates a vote, but have MPs specifically with an expatriate constituency,” he said. “The UK parliament makes decisions affecting my life, even after 30 years of being absent from the UK. As I have no way whereby my voice can be heard, I become completely disenfranchised. I feel completely let down by no longer having a vote when issues of major importance to me are being decided.”
Sally Veall on the Costa Brava compared the denial of a right to vote to the situation in Saudi Arabia.
“We often hear in the news about women in Saudi Arabia who were not allowed to vote until 2015, sometimes with outrage,” she pointed out.
“In fact, we who have lived outside the UK for just 15 years are in the same situation, totally disenfranchised! We can't vote in the UK or in Spain, we have no voice, no rights to express our political feelings in a democratic manner through a vote. It's as if we don't exist, which is probably what our wonderful UK government would like.”
She admits that being disenfranchised makes her feel “that as a person I am invisible, my thoughts and feelings count for nothing. Just because I happen to live outside the UK doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to vote there as I have a British passport which says I am a ‘British Citizen’. “
“I feel frustrated and cheated,” said Doug Morgan from Almeria. “Especially since leaving the EU has a direct effect on my living conditions.”
“I feel terribly frustrated. I wrote to the government asking for a right to vote in the Brexit referendum and they replied saying the idea had been debated but they ran out of time. A feeble excuse,” said Kim Coleman Cooper, who lives in Alcoy in Alicante region and has lived outside of the UK for 30 years.
Some of our readers expressed anger that voting rights will be eroded even further with Brexit.
“As European citizens British people resident in all member states have the right to vote in local and EU elections,” says Suzanna McAllister from Lliber in the province of Alicante.
“Post Brexit this right will no longer exist. Brexit will effectively disenfranchise the hundreds of thousands of British citizens resident in the European Union.”
“The British Parliament has treated British residents in the EU with total disregard and disdain,” she added. “I’m very angry”.
Proxy or postal?
For those Britons in Spain who can vote in December's election almost 63 percent say they will do so via a proxy vote, with 31 percent opting for a postal vote.
Local authorities in Britain have been suggesting Brits abroad to opt for proxy vote given the short time limit for arranging the elections and historical problems with postal votes.