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CITIZENS RIGHTS

OPINION: ‘All certainty has vanished’ for British citizens living in Europe

With the UK government proposing to effectively override parts of the carefully negotiated and ratified Brexit Withdrawal Agreement concern is mounting among Britons living in Europe that their futures aren't quite as guaranteed as they thought. British in Europe explain.

OPINION: 'All certainty has vanished' for British citizens living in Europe
AFP

The British government admitted in parliament this week that new legislation called the internal markets bill, breaks international law, because it overrides part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement between London and the EU's 27 member states.

The British in Europe campaign group, which fights for the rights of Britons living across the EU, says the “simple but devastating” move has once again removed all certainty for UK nationals.

 

British in Europe:

After Theresa May rejected, before the start of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, the option simply to confirm automatically the existing rights of over 5 million EU and UK citizens living in the UK and the EU, this group of 5 million people have been anxiously waiting to know whether they would be able to continue to live their lives with their families and their livelihoods in the countries where they reside.

Together we have spent four years in limbo, with the spectre of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on citizens’ rights lasting until the end of last year.

In January 2020 we finally hoped that the signature and the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement meant that our worst fears would not be realised and that we would at least salvage enough of our rights to live our lives broadly as before and have relative certainty about what those rights would be.

We knew that implementation would be challenging in all 30 EU and EEA countries plus Switzerland but hoped that with good faith on both sides most of us would finally have some peace of mind about our futures by the end of 2021 at the latest.

It appears that this hope was naïve. With this simple but devastating statement in the House of Commons and the publication of the draft bill, all certainty has vanished.

'It's worrying for hundreds of thousands of UK nationals in the EU'

Since Sunday night we have been receiving anxious enquiries from our members about what a breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol could mean for the implementation of the citizens’ rights chapter of the Withdrawal Agreement and for their futures.

It is particularly worrying for the hundreds of thousands of UK nationals living in the EU member states which are following the UK’s lead and requiring them to reapply for their status and rights – especially where implementation has not started. France, home to the second largest population of UK nationals in the EU, falls into this category.

AFP

In the UK, the3million has been encouraging EU citizens to apply for status via the EU settlement scheme believing their right to live, work and access services in the UK to be secure. The UK government risks further eroding the trust that EU citizens have in the safety that settled status will provide them.

The statement in the House of Commons and the published bill send a clear message to the EU that if the UK does not intend to honour one critical part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it cannot be trusted to implement other parts of the Agreement, including on citizens’ rights.

'Levels of trust were already low'

The calls that followed from some Conservative MPs for the Agreement to be scrapped reinforced that message. The Member States will rightly now question whether the UK will honour its obligations towards over three million EU citizens living within its borders.

Levels of trust were already low but this unprecedented act of bad faith towards our nearest neighbours and partners throws 1.2 million UK nationals living in the EU under the bus yet again. The extent to which trust has been undermined by the UK government’s actions this week is clear in the very frank statement from Commission Vice-President Šefčovič on 10 September.

By putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst economic recession in fifty years was bad enough. Dealing with the consequences of the actions of a government that acts with no regard for the security of its nationals abroad, nor apparently for the rule of law, will be infinitely worse.

'Any statement by the Prime Minister would now count for very little.'

We now ask Prime Minister Johnson to do the decent thing and make an urgent statement in the House confirming that the UK will honour its obligations towards EU nationals in the UK and its own citizens living in the EU in the full spirit and to the letter of the Withdrawal Agreement. 

We appreciate that any statement by the Prime Minister would now count for very little. The statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the publication of the draft internal market bill cannot be undone. However, as the EU pointed out in its statement yesterday, “it is now up to the UK government to re-establish… trust.”

Confirming that the UK will honour all its commitments under the citizens’ rights chapter of the Withdrawal Agreement would be a start to that process and should be done as a matter of urgency.

We also call on EU countries to stand by their obligations to us under the Withdrawal Agreement, and thereby reaffirm the importance of the rule of law and of honouring the promises that were made to us. Together, both of our organisations shall continue to press the UK government to show that the UK still stands for decency by keeping its word and honouring its obligations to citizens in full.

You can read the full British in Europe statement here.

Member comments

  1. I doubt the bill will pass, unless Johnson has found a mechanism to bypass the House of Lords and the Commons. Also, if it does get passed, I doubt it will have much of an impact on the British resident in Europe. There is a point of honour there – Europe will abide by most of its side of the agreement just to prove the point.

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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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