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BREXIT

Why are the French shrugging their shoulders at Brexit?

One thing has surprised author Stephen Clarke about the French attitude towards a potential Brexit - their sheer indifference.

Why are the French shrugging their shoulders at Brexit?
Photo: Jan Lewandowski/Flickr
Not all French people know what a “Brexit” is, at least by name. The word is being used a lot by journalists, but it's not exactly getting bandied about at my corner café here in Paris.
 
What most French people do seem to have, though, is an opinion on the idea of Britain leaving the EU. From what I gather, it seems to be a fairly even split between “Ne nous quittez pas” (to misquote Jacques Brel) and “bonne continuation” (to quote French people when they don't really care what happens to you next).
 
I'm sure that every British expat is getting lectured about the sheer impoliteness of turning our backs on our continental friends. Many French people are still convinced that we Brits are only happy when staring out at a distant Europe from the safety of the White Cliffs of Dover.
 
One old monsieur I met even suggested that someone near Dover was permanently sitting by a sort of tap, waiting for the order to flood the tunnel. Though I think he was still bitter because Napoleon's plans to cross the Channel never came off. 
 
This notion of impoliteness includes, of course, the realization that without Britain, there will be a lot less money available to do things like refloat ailing European economies and subsidize French farmers. (And let's face it, anyone with a full set of taste buds is in favour of generosity towards the people who make things like Roquefort and Muscat de Rivesaltes – to name two of my own French favourites.)
 
France knows how much sterling gets pumped across the Channel, and doesn't want the flow to stop. 
 
There are, of course, all the incoming refugees to deal with, but that problem is much too complex for a mere book writer like me to get into. 
 
One thing about France's attitude towards a potential Brexit has surprised me: the amount of indifference. A few people I've talked to have made that most expressive of French noises, the pouting raspberry, accompanied perhaps by a thrust of the chin or even a shrug that informs you that the question you just asked is about as high on their list of priorities as the need to give Saturn's rings a new paint job. 
 
These aren't just French introverts whose lives wouldn't be affected by a reduction in the size of the EU's budgets or borders. They're also outward-looking people who see equal advantages in either outcome of the referendum. Deep down, the French feel confident that life will always go on being French. 
 
Some Parisian bankers I talked to were optimistic that Paris might oust London as a financial capital, so that all those French entrepreneurs who fled to London when François Hollande was elected would come flooding back. But they had also done a calculation of possible fluctuations in capital and trade, and had worked out that there was plenty of money to be made whether the referendum ends in “au revoir” or “Brexit? What Brexit?”. 
 
This was the idea that inspired my new novel, Merde in Europe. 

The hero, Paul West, is in Brussels working for a French MEP. She says she's campaigning to keep Britain in the EU. But Paul becomes increasingly suspicious of her true motives. She is French, so she has French interests at heart – running a close second behind her own self-interest. Politicians will be politicians. So what we see in the novel is Paul rampaging through the corridors of the EU institutions wondering “can all this be real?” and asking himself whether he wants to be part of it himself, both as an individual and a UK citizen. 
 
When you see the insane things that actually go on in Brussels, which I did by work-shadowing and interviewing eurocrats (who made me promise to change their names, nationalities and sometimes genders too), it helps you to decide where you think the future lies – in or out of the EU, or somewhere in between. I'm not going to say how I feel, but it takes Paul a whole novel to do so – and all is revealed at the end, of course. 
 
Stephen Clarke's new novel is Merde in Europe. It is available from all open-minded booksellers. It's also been translated into French, as God Save le Brexit? (note the question mark – the French just can't decide).

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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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