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OPINION: The UK blew its precious chance to guarantee our post-Brexit rights

Theresa May’s letter to UK nationals living in Europe on the progress of Brexit negotiations is likely to prompt us to save up Brussels sprouts for a New Year’s pelting ceremony at Downing Street, writes Laura Shields from citizens' group British in Europe.

OPINION: The UK blew its precious chance to guarantee our post-Brexit rights
Photo: AFP
How should we, the 1.2 million British people living in continental Europe, reply to the shiny Christmas letter we received from Theresa May hoping to reassure us that we’ll be able to carry on life as normal after Brexit?
 
In the spirit of yuletide joy, I suppose we should be grateful that we have a letter at all…even if it comes a week after the one she sent to the 3.3 million Europeans living in London and is clearly a cut and pasted version of that.
 
But to avoid being churlish, let’s look at what comfort we can draw from her claim to have successfully brokered a reciprocal deal to secure our rights against of those of the 3 million Europeans living in the UK.
 
If you are a pensioner or someone who doesn’t need to travel or move around for work then perhaps you’ll feel like raising a glass of mulled wine to toast Mrs May’s success at securing our residence, healthcare and social security rights.
 
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Abused, shunned but unfazed: What it's like being a Brexit-supporting Brit in FrancePhoto: AFP

Unfortunately, if you look at the fine print of December 8th's UK-EU joint technical report two issues are striking.
 
Firstly, our residence rights haven’t actually been guaranteed. Instead of retaining our automatic right to reside we, like our European friends in the UK, will instead end up with settled status which, depending on which EU 27 country you live in, many mean you need to go through a far from infallible application process replete with criminal background checks.
 
What a fun thing for an 85-year-old to be considering at this point in life.
 
Secondly, for the rest of us who need to travel or move for work (and remember four in five Brits in Europe are working age or younger) then May’s letter is likely to prompt us to save up all our unwanted soggy Brussels sprouts and plan an unseasonal trip to Downing Street for an impromptu but festive New Year’s pelting ceremony.
 
Why? Partly because some of our most important worries been deemed ‘out of scope’ for the first phase of the talks and have been bumped into Phase Two.
 
These include free movement, cross border service provision (e.g. if you have a catering company and live in France but work in other EU countries) and whether professional qualifications will still be recognised and economic rights apply across the EU 27.
 
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki Photo: AFP
 
But mostly it’s about May’s spin that the EU didn’t want to discuss these issues in Phase 1 of the negotiations, when the European Commission negotiating directives from June clearly indicate otherwise.
 
There was a precious window in which to guarantee all our rights but the UK blew it because they were more interested in cutting those of EU nationals in the UK.
 
So, where does this leave us?
 
At British in Europe, we’re going to keep working with our sister group the 3 Million to ensure that citizens’ rights – or how Brexit will affect the (mostly disenfranchised) 4.6 million people directly affected by it – doesn’t get forgotten amid the fog of arguments about agriculture, financial services and airline slots.
 
Solidarity, which is clearly out of fashion at the moment, is unbelievably important right now.

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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