SHARE
COPY LINK

BRITONS IN EUROPE

‘Mixed feelings’: British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

British citizens living abroad will no longer lose their right to vote in UK elections if they have been abroad for over 15 years, after a long-term government pledge finally became law. Here's what we know about the new rules.

'Mixed feelings': British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life
Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

What’s happened?

The UK government’s Elections Bill finally passed through the House of Lords in the British parliament on Wednesday night. Part two of the bill was was hugely important for British citizens living abroad because it restored their right to vote in UK General Elections, no matter how long they have lived abroad for.

Previously the so-called ’15-year rule’ meant Brits who had been out of the country for more than 15 years lost the right to vote back home. This rule effectively barred tens of thousands of Britons abroad from voting in the 2016 EU referendum, despite the fact the result had a direct impact on their lives.

It is believed the bill now extends voting rights to some 3.5 million British nationals living around the world, over one million of those living in Europe.

The move marks a victory for those Britons who have long campaigned against the 15-year rule, none more so than 100-year-old Harry Schindler, a British citizen living in Italy who began the campaign many years ago.

What’s the reaction been like?

Whilst the reaction has been mainly positive to the change, there were reasons for Britons not to be satisfied. 

Jane Golding, former co-chair of British in Europe, and chair of British in Germany was, like many, unhappy with the another element of the bill that means voters will have to show mandatory photographic ID at the polling station, a move that critics say will make it harder for less well-off citizens and young people to vote.

“We are of course very pleased to have our votes back and pay particular tribute to the tenacious campaign that Harry Shindler has run for many years to make this happen,” Golding told The Local.

“Members of our British in Europe steering committee, including myself, have also campaigned for many years to make this a reality but it is difficult to celebrate a bill that undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission and will probably make it more difficult for lower income or disadvantaged UK resident citizens to vote. Moreover, the proof will be in the pudding: a right is only a reality when it is properly implemented.”

Sue Wilson, from Bremain in Spain also struck a similar note.

“Today’s long-awaited result brings with it mixed feelings. My 15 years outside of the UK will be up in August, so my stake in the outcome is very personal. I should feel like celebrating the overdue restoration of our democratic voting rights.

“However, it’s impossible to ignore the cost to others and to UK democracy in general. Where we are gaining back voting rights, others will be disenfranchised by the new requirement for photo ID. The bill has also removed the independence of the Electoral Commission and made it easier for foreign money to influence future elections. What should today feel like a win, sadly does not.”

What are ‘votes for life’?

The new rule will allow British citizens living in another country to continue participating in the democratic process in the UK by retaining their right to vote – no matter where they live or how long they have been outside of the UK.

The changes were part of the Elections Bill, and also make it easier for overseas electors to remain registered for longer through an absent voting arrangement.

This means electors will have to renew their registration details every three years instead of annually.

How can British people overseas use ‘votes for life’?

The new “votes for life” will apply to all British citizens living overseas who have been previously registered to vote or previously resident in the UK.

The absent voting arrangement means individuals will be able to reapply for a postal vote or refresh their proxy vote at the same time as renewing their voter registration.

However, overseas electors will only be entitled to register in respect of one UK address, with clear rules put in place surrounding this. 

British people wishing to register to vote under the new measures will also have to show a “demonstrable connection” to a UK address.

Furthermore, individuals will have to register in the constituency of the last address where they were registered to vote, or the last address where they were a resident.

The government states that someone can demonstrate their last address by checking past copies of the electoral register or local data such as tax records, or by documentary evidence or, “failing the above, an attestation from another registered elector”.

Why has the UK government made these changes?

Unfortunately this comes too late for many Brits abroad to get a say in the thing that has had the biggest impact on their lives – Brexit – but it’s better late than never.

In a previous press release, the UK government stated that decisions made by UK Parliament impacts British citizens who live overseas and so they should have a say in UK Parliamentary General Elections.

It specifically mentions decisions made surrounding foreign policy, defence, immigration, pensions and trade deals.

But issues such as NHS access, UK university fees, nationality and border measures are also of huge significance to Britons living abroad.

Lord True, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, said previously: “In an increasingly global and connected world, most British citizens living overseas retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. 

“Many still have family here, have a history of hard work in the UK behind them, and some have even fought for our country.

“These measures support our vision for a truly Global Britain, opening up our democracy to British citizens living overseas who deserve to have their voices heard in our Parliament, no matter where they choose to live.”

More could  be done for Brits abroad

Many other countries already give their overseas nationals the right to vote for life and some, including France, have MPs dedicated to representing nationals who live overseas.

But an amendment put forward by the Lib Dem party to give Britons abroad MPs was rejected.

The Lib Dems also criticised the British government for failing to streamline the voting process to make it easier for Britons to vote from abroad. The government rejected a call to move to electronic voting for those overseas to replace postal voting.

Member comments

  1. “Unfortunately this comes too late for many Brits abroad to get a say in the thing that has had the biggest impact on their lives – Brexit – but it’s better late than never.”

    No it’s really not . Brexit is a total unnecessary toxic mess and as a European resident i would have liked to have had a say. I have no interest in voting in a country i don’t live in. I would prefer to vote in France where the election process has an impact on my life.

  2. Don’t hold your breath. I just spoke with the Electoral Registration Office in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to the agent there, the law will only come into effect in June 2023. Make a note in your diary for next year. 😉

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

BREXIT

What is the latest on Gibraltar’s Brexit status?

With 2023 approaching and negotiations between Gibraltar, the UK, EU and Spain dragging on for yet another year, what is the latest on Gibraltar and Brexit? Will they reach a deal before New Year and how could it affect life in Gibraltar and Spain?

What is the latest on Gibraltar's Brexit status?

As British politics tries to move on from Brexit, the tiny British territory at the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar, has been stuck in political limbo since the referendum all the way back in 2016.

Gibraltar, which voted in favour of Remain during the referendum by a whopping 96 percent, was not included in the Brexit deal and has instead relied on a framework agreement made between the UK and Spain on New Year’s Eve in 2020.

After that framework was laid out, it was hoped that the various parties – that is, the Gibraltarian government, Spain, the EU, and the UK – would build on it and quickly find a wider treaty agreement establishing Gibraltar’s place on the European mainland in the post-Brexit world.

It was thought that Gibraltar could enter into a common travel area with the Schengen zone, limiting border controls and essentially creating a custom-made customs arrangement with the EU.

But since then, the negotiation process has stopped and started, with no deal being made and uncertainty dragging on through 2021.

Despite all parties still being relatively optimistic in the spring of 2022, no resolution has been found and 2023 is approaching.

Relying on the framework agreement alone, uncertainty about what exactly the rules are and how they should be implemented have caused confusion and long delays on the border.

The roadblocks

Progress in the multi-faceted negotiations to bash out a treaty and determine Gibraltar’s place in the post-Brexit world have repeatedly stumbled over the same roadblocks.

The main one is the issue of the border. Known in Spain and Gibraltar as La Línea – meaning ‘the line’ in reference to the Spanish town directly across the border, La Línea de la Concepción – the subject of the border and who exactly will patrol it (and on which side) has been a constant sticking point in negotiations.

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in late November 2022. There has been no immediate response from London.

The Gibraltarians refuse to accept Spanish boots on the ground and would prefer the European-wide Frontex border force. The British government feel this would be an impingement on British sovereignty. There’s also been the persistent issues of VAT and corporation tax considerations, as well as the British Navy base and how to police the waters around it.

Though there had been reports that the ongoing British driving license in Spain fiasco had been one of the reasons negotiations had stalled, the British ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliot categorically denied any connection between the issue of Gibraltar’s Brexit deal and British driving licence recognition earlier in November.

READ ALSO: CONFIRMED: Deal on UK licences in Spain agreed but still no exchange date

On different pages?

Not only do the long-standing sticking points remain, but it also seems that the various negotiating parties are on slightly different pages with regards to how exactly each seems to think the negotiations are going.

Judging by reports in the Spanish press in recent weeks, it appears that many in Spain may believe the negotiations are wrapping up and a conclusion could be found by New Year. This perception comes largely from comments made by Pascual Navarro, Spain’s State Secretary to the EU. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Navarro claimed that negotiations have advanced so well that they were now only working ‘on the commas’ of the text – that is to say, tidying it up.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”. (Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP)

“No issue that is blocked,” he said. “All of the text is on the table.” A full treaty, he suggested, could be signed “before the end of the year.”

Yet it seems the Gibraltarians don’t quite see the progress as positively as their neighbours. Last week the Gibraltar government, known as No.6, acknowledged Navarro’s optimism.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo however, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”.

No.6 remains positive and hopes for a deal, but in recent weeks has also published technical contingency plans for businesses to prepare for what they are calling a ‘Non-Negotiated Outcome’ – effectively a ‘no-deal’ in normal Brexit jargon.

The UK, however, seem to be somewhere in the middle. Like Navarro, the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently suggested at a House of Commons select committee that only “a relatively small number” of issues remain to be resolved.

However, he also acknowledged the possibility of a non-negotiated outcome. “I think it’s legitimate to look at that [planning for a non-negotiated outcome] as part of our thinking,” Mr Cleverly said. “But obviously we are trying to avoid an NNO.”

Election year

If no deal is found by New Year, that would mean that negotiations drag into 2023 – election years for both Picardo and Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Prime Minister.

Gibraltar is expected to have elections sometime in the second-half of the year, and Sánchez has to call an election by the end of 2023.

In many ways, Spanish domestic politics has the potential to play a far greater role in Gibraltar’s fate than British politics. In fact, the shadow of Spanish politics looms over these negotiations and the future relationship between Spain and Gibraltar, the UK and Spain, and the UK and EU.

If Sánchez’s PSOE were to lose the election, which according to the latest polling data is the most probable outcome, then it would be likely that Spain’s centre-right party PP would seek to renegotiate, if not outright reject, any deal made.

READ ALSO: Who will win Spain’s 2023 election – Sánchez or Feijóo?

If PP are unable to secure a ruling majority, however, they may well be forced to rely on the far-right party Vox, who have often used nationalist anti-Gibraltar rhetoric as a political weapon. If Vox were to enter into government, which is unlikely but a possibility, it’s safe to say any agreement – if one is even reached before then – would be torn up and the Spanish government would take a much harder line in negotiations.

As the consequences of Brexit churn on in Britain, in Gibraltar uncertainty looms.

SHOW COMMENTS