The Local’s view: Most Brits in Europe didn’t ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work

The EU has given hundreds of thousands of Brits the chance to build lives abroad. Most Brits in Europe didn't choose Brexit, but now it's happening we have an important choice to make, writes The Local's James Savage.

The Local's view: Most Brits in Europe didn't ask for Brexit, but now we have to make it work
The Local runs news sites in nine European countries. Photo: AFP

The British MEPs – many of whom were only elected in May – are packing their bags in Brussels for the last time. British ministers have attended their last European Council meetings. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has signed the document ratifying Britain's exit from the EU. 

And on Friday night Big Ben will (much to the frustration of some pro-Brexit MPs) witness the end of 47 years of British membership of the European project in silence.

If Britain ever rejoins, it will be many years in the future and on very different terms. Every sign is that the immediate future relationship between Britain and the EU will be a far looser relationship than Norway or even Switzerland currently have. Free movement won't be a part of it.

If you, like me, are a Brit who made your home in another EU country it's a strange feeling.

I hopped on a train to Paris at 22, got a job, fell in love with a Swede and eventually settled in Sweden. Others have moved for work, to retire, to study – or like me, just on a whim – and many have stayed. When my nieces in England are 22, many of those opportunities will be closed to them. But for too many Britons, the idea of living in another country – especially one where the language isn't English – is entirely alien.

Being an EU citizen in another EU country is a funny thing. Culturally you're an immigrant – a new language, a different culture, a frustratingly unfamiliar bureaucracy. Yet in an important sense you are there as of right, as a European citizen, not as a privilege.

For those of us already in an EU country that right is only partially protected after Brexit: we will be legal residents but not citizens, and we will lose our right to vote (in most countries) and stand for election in local, regional and European elections as well as onward freedom of movement to other European countries.

There are Brits living in the EU who welcome Brexit, and not only because they want to keep immigrants out of the UK (though some people with an underdeveloped sense of irony hold that view too).

But when we asked The Local's readers for your feelings ahead of Brexit Day, the overall sentiment was one of depression – the word 'devastated' came up again and again. 'Like a hangover that won't go away' was another comment. 

And your thoughts weren't primarily occupied by your own predicaments – many of you were more worried about the big picture: Britain's future, Europe's future and the future of friends and family left behind. 

The Brexit negotiations have been deeply unsettling for many Brits living in the EU, as they have for EU citizens in the UK. We've often been asked to trust politicians with a shaky grasp of our realities and sometimes an open disdain for our views. Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' jibe may not have been meant for us, but for some it felt like it.

Brexit has also engendered a venomous political debate that has seeped into our relationships with friends and family. We now live in a world where we either approve of or disdain the political opinions of people with whom we had never previously even discussed politics. Increased engagement in politics, we've learned, isn't always an unalloyed sign of progress.

But as withdrawal approaches these tensions have subsided a bit, as they must. As Brexit became inevitable, the subject moved further into the background at the Christmas dinner table. Choosing not to fight a culture war doesn't mean renouncing your views.

Thankfully most Brits living around the EU will be able to continue their lives as before, even if some important issues – such as the rights of those who work in different countries, the rights of people who don't meet various income requirements for residency and onward freedom of movement – remain unsolved. The Local will be watching these issues closely over the coming months and years.  

Indeed, if we're to play the glad game (and why not?), some genuine positives have come out of this process: more of us have reached out to fellow Brits in our communities across Europe and built deep and lasting bonds – something that's been palpable among the Brits who read The Local; more of us have become citizens in the countries in which we live, planting our masts firmly where we live, work and love; along with countless people in Britain we have reflected on what unites us as Europeans, not only what distinguishes us as Brits.

These don't compensate fully for the negatives, but they're worth recognizing.

Perhaps we've also reflected on divisions in British society, divisions reflected across Europe, that gave rise to Brexit in the first place. 

Britain enters a new world on Friday night, and so do Brits living in the EU. We might not have chosen this world, but we can choose how we relate to it. We should choose carefully.


James Savage is Publisher and co-founder of The Local Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @SavLocal


Member comments

  1. I am disappointed, although not surprised to see yet another biased article. I voted for Brexit because I absolutely disagree with how the EU is run. I could not in all good conscience vote for such an undemocratic, non-transparent, wasteful system. I do not agree with the economis sytems of the EU and I defintely do not agree with the Euro. It has crippled south european countries. There are too many EU policies that I find sinister and it is clear to anyone who wants to look that it is as good as a federation. Another United States. Well, we’ve seen how well they work and I did not want Britain to be part of that. I live in France simply because I could afford a house here without a mortgage. Simple. I have also lived in the Far East.

    Please note tnhat I believe Britian desperately needs immigration as we do not have enough people for certain jobs. Brexit was not about immigration for everyone and it is prejudicial to state it was the only reason for Brexit but typical of the media. How sad.

    I will not vote for something I disagree with.
    The world outside of the EU is much bigger than the EU. Let’s get on with working with the whole world and thank goodness we are getting our of the EU protectionist economics.

    Louise Rollason

  2. I totally agree with you, Louise. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Although I’m based in France, I still work for, and pay taxes in, the UK. I unfortunately couldn’t vote, as I’m an Italian citizen, and if I could, I would have voted against Brexit. I always hoped that the UK would have been able to help the EU get out of the bordello they’re in, by being in the EU. Too late now, GB has left. I wish the EU all the best, but I honestly don’t see the silver lining yet. Take care.

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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.