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BREXIT

OPINION: Now it’s time for under-the-radar Brits in Spain to become official residents

Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Brits in Spain will soon be applying for the new Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero (TIE). For the time being at least, I will not be one of them, writes Sue Wilson from the Bremain in Spain group.

OPINION: Now it's time for under-the-radar Brits in Spain to become official residents
AFP

Don’t get me wrong – I think the new identity card is a great idea, and there are benefits over my existing, and rather ragged, green residencia certificate.

Since I moved to Spain in 2007, I’ve never left home without my passport. Although I have photo ID in the form of my Spanish driving licence, I’m a belt and braces kind of gal, and old habits die hard. Having a new photo ID card will finally make me leave my passport at home – in theory at least!

The TIE won’t provide any additional rights to those we enjoy as legal residents.  It does prove our entitlement to those rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), but the old, green residencia certificate does the same. However, the new card will specifically state (i.e. printed on it) the protection of WA rights.

Legally resident Brits are under no obligation to swap their existing green certificate or card for the TIE, as our existing documentation will remain legally valid, even after the transition period. 

The British Embassy in Madrid has liaised with Spanish authorities and British citizen groups across Spain over this matter. Considerable debate has surrounded the TIE and the implications for non-resident Brits. Although it has recently been impossible to meet the Ambassador or embassy staff in person, because of Covid, our virtual meetings have continued. The Embassy are also keen to engage directly with British citizens, legal or otherwise, via their Facebook group, including live Q&A events.

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Using funds provided by the British government, several organisations are providing support to British citizens in the most populated regions of Spain. These groups will focus on helping the most vulnerable people navigate the residency application process.

The number of British citizens legally resident in Spain has hovered over the 300,000 mark for some time, although the figure is now rising because of Brexit. The total number, including those living under the radar, is estimated at up to one million. Even if that is an over-estimate, the Spanish authorities will certainly be handling applications from hundreds of thousands of British citizens.

The two-step process for those who are not currently legally resident involves the immigration office and the national police and can take many weeks. To qualify for the important benefits conferred by the WA, such as healthcare and pensions protection, the non-residents will be mindful of the transition period ending on 31 December 2020. 

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That so many Brits aren’t legally registered has always remained controversial amongst the legal British community.

The reasons for failing to complete the process are many and varied. It might be a simple case of failing to understand the requirements, finding the process daunting, or simply not getting around to it. For others, it may have been due to financial concerns, or even a deliberate attempt to avoid paying Spanish taxes. While legal residents may sympathise with the lazy or confused, we are less sympathetic to those who are knowingly abusing the system, at the expense of our hosts.

Unlike in other countries, such as the UK or France, we are fortunate that Spain has chosen a simple system to ensure our rights after transition ends. As legal residents, we don’t have to fear rejection, as our status will not change. The most we will need do, if we so choose, is to swap our existing documentation for the new card, with the WA protections stated on it.

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Much as I look forward to receiving my new TIE card eventually, I’m going to sit back and let those hundreds of thousands of non-residents take priority first. No doubt, we’ll see massive queues, huge demand for appointments and teething problems, as with any new system. My thoughts are with the Spanish authorities – having to deal with so many people in a limited time period, and with language barriers to overcome.

It is a positive move that under-the-radar Brits – even those evading Spanish taxes – are now doing the right thing. If all the legal residents wanting to swap for a TIE join me at the back of the queue, Spain will receive the missing taxes they are due as soon as possible. That can only be good for all of us.

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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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