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BREXIT

OPINION: ‘The deadline for Brits in Spain to apply for residency should be extended’

Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain takes a look at the latest calls to safeguard the rights of British citizens living in the EU in the wake of Brexit and how there is still more to be done.

OPINION: 'The deadline for Brits in Spain to apply for residency should be extended'
Photo: AFP

With Brexit negotiations randomly on again, off again, it’s rare that the topic of citizens’ rights comes up these days. We regularly hear about fishing, or the “level playing field”, but our rights as UK citizens have recently been largely ignored.

This week, the Future Relationship with the European Union committee (FREU) proved that it still has our best interests at heart with the publication of a report. The cross-party House of Commons committee, headed by Hilary Benn MP, has always looked out for the rights of British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK.

Formerly known as the Exiting the EU committee, until Brexit was “done”, it has listened to evidence from many witnesses representing various demographics and sectors. Campaign groups for UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, have regularly presented evidence concerning the issues we face after Brexit, myself included.

At this late stage, it’s reassuring that the committee is still focusing on our rights and is unanimous in its conclusion that these “must be a priority”. In its report issued on Tuesday, FREU urged “the UK and EU to ensure that the citizens' rights protections in the Withdrawal Agreement are fully implemented for UK nationals living across the EU and EU citizens in the UK”.

As well as several recommendations regarding EU citizens’ rights in the UK, the committee made the following three points regarding our rights in the EU:

1) UK nationals need to be made aware of what they need to do to secure their rights.

Responsibility lies with both the UK and EU governments to make relevant information available to enable residency applications. The priority is to ensure that we understand what is required to secure our post-Brexit rights. This is being facilitated through embassies and consulates and with UK government-funded support programmes. The report highlighted the need for the UK government to monitor the effectiveness of the available support, and to reassess and reallocate resources if required.

2) Deadlines for UK citizens to apply for resident status should be extended where necessary.

The report urged EU governments to extend deadlines for residency applications, if they hadn’t done so already. It also recommended that some flexibility be applied to delays, especially if Covid-19 issues had caused “a reduction in their capacity to manage applications”.

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The TIE card (inset) is a must for Britons living in Spain who haven't registered before. Photo: AFP/ British Embassy Madrid

 

3) UK nationals should be encouraged to register in host countries.

The committee highlighted the importance of registration as the first step in securing rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. The report also warned that, in countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and Greece, unknown numbers of unregistered UK nationals exist. The committee urged the UK government to help those people to register before the transition period ends.

The report ended with a quote from its’ chairman, Benn: “This Committee and its predecessors have taken a close interest in the rights of UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK. This is an incredibly important issue that has affected, and will continue to affect, the lives of millions,” he said.

“Both the UK and EU member states have done much to help ensure that the rights of citizens are protected, but with deadlines approaching, those who have not yet applied need to know that they must do so. That’s why the necessary information must be communicated clearly and comprehensively. Whatever happens with the negotiations, nobody who has built a life outside their country of birth should run the risk of being forced to leave simply because they inadvertently slipped through the net by not claiming the rights that are theirs.”

While the Brexit negotiations continue – or don’t – it is still unclear whether a deal will be struck between the two parties. Whatever happens, you can be sure that “negotiations” with our nearest and biggest trading partners will continue for many months, if not years.

Despite UK government rhetoric and posturing, discussions – in some form or other – will be occurring behind the scenes. As Hilary Benn said in the House of Commons on Tuesday: “It's quite clear the negotiations are continuing, and I think the war of words now needs to stop. Both sides need to get together and agree a deal.”

Whether we end up with no deal, or a bad deal, we can be sure of two things. Firstly, the rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement are safe under international law, regardless of whether a deal is reached. Secondly, our rights – and the deal – will never be as good as those we enjoyed as EU citizens, and with the UK as a member state.

Brexit should never have been our destination, but this is where we are now.

We expect the British government to mitigate the damage, but we must take responsibility for doing so as well.

Please ensure that everyone you know is registered as a legal resident of Spain, as soon as possible. We may not keep all of our rights, but those protected by the Withdrawal Agreement are definitely worth signing up for!

 

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

 

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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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