‘Enough is enough’: Brits living in Europe take citizens’ rights fight to London

As the clock ticks down and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit potentially looms, rights groups representing Britons living in the EU and EU citizens in the UK took their struggle to Westminster on Monday.

'Enough is enough': Brits living in Europe take citizens' rights fight to London
Campaigners from British in Europe and the 3Million deliver their letter to the British PM at Downing Street on Monday. Photo: British in Europe

They called on the UK and the EU to safeguard the post-Brexit citizenship rights of approximately five million people living in the UK and the EU. The call comes on a day of action branded ‘the last mile citizens' lobby’.

Campaigners formed a human chain on Monday November 5th from Parliament Square to 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British PM Theresa May, to deliver a letter from the rights groups outlining demands for citizenship rights to be protected and ring-fenced regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

“Enough is enough – we need the UK government and the EU to honour the commitments already made to us during the negotiations, no matter what,” said a statement from British in Europe.

“We are campaigning, alongside our friends the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK, for the UK government and the EU to commit now to ring-fencing and implementing the citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50 – no matter what the outcome on Brexit.”

“You jointly have it within your powers to end this nightmare immediately for over 4 million of us, by taking the true moral high ground and publicly committing to honouring these agreements on our rights – whatever the outcome of the rest of the negotiations,” the3million and British in Europe wrote in an open letter to the UK’s and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiators in September.  

Participants in the human chain included social care workers, nurses, unpaid carers and other people who could fall victim to a hostile environment if their rights are not secured in a no-deal scenario. There will also be a rally in Parliament Square and a mass lobby of MPs in Parliament. 

For those who couldn't attend in person but wanted to participate, the grassroots rights movement British in Europe is calling on people to join its e-lobby by sending a letter to their local MP or by taking to Twitter.

The EU and the UK agreed on a package of reciprocal rights for citizens post-Brexit in the so-called Withdrawal Agreement, first announced in December 2017 and confirmed in a final draft in March 2018.

But those rights are contingent to the UK and the EU reaching agreement on the broader and outstanding Brexit issues, which include the ongoing problem of the Irish border. Campaigners fear they will be left high and dry if the withdrawal agreement is scrapped.

The day of action and the campaign to ring-fence rights regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations has the broad support of a group of cross-party British MPs.

“Fairness, common sense and mutual interest all dictate the rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe should be protected after Brexit. I entirely support those who are campaigning to ensure that this happens,” Dominic Grieve QC, Conservative MP and former Attorney General, will tell Parliament in an address on Monday, according to a statement by British in Europe.

“A significant amount of the anxiety EU nationals in the UK and British citizens in the EU are experiencing about their futures could be alleviated by the UK government seeking agreement with the EU that they will honour their agreement on citizens' rights, even in the event of no deal,” Paul Blomfield, Labour MP and shadow Brexit minister, is expected to add.

Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat MP, will say in his address to parliament that “five million people have been living under a cloud of uncertainty for more than two years now.

The government must guarantee – in law – the rights of all EU citizens in the UK, no matter the outcome of the negotiations.”

The campaign has not only found cross-party support in the UK, but support from European politicians too.

“I am directly affected by this issue,” French Senator Olivier Cadic, who is resident in the UK and represents French citizens in the country, told The Local.

“After more than two years and five months since the referendum it is totally unbelievable to still not know what Brexit means.”

Cadic has joined the campaign to ring-fence citizens rights because he suspects a no-deal Brexit “looks increasingly likely” due to the impasse on the issue of the Irish border. “

“How can we prepare for a no-deal Brexit?” said Cadic, noting that many citizens have already made arrangements based on the terms in the Withdrawal Agreement. 

Thousands of Brits in France are in the process of applying for a Carte de Séjour residency permit as they have been advised to do by France's Ministry of Interior.

Thousands of Brits across Europe are also applying to gain citizenship of their adopted countries as a way of guaranteeing their rights.

Member comments

  1. The French Minister of the Interior has asked us to apply for a Carte de Séjour, but how can we do that when the prefecture only releases a very small number of appointment times at midnight on a Sunday? I have been trying for weeks to get an appointment, getting more and more fretful as time goes on. Politicians, please sort it out!

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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.