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BREXIT

Britons in Europe hold breath as MPs set to vote on Brexit deal

Britons across Europe faced a crucial day on Tuesday with Theresa May's Brexit deal set for a crunch vote in parliament. If, as expected, it fails to get the green light, then campaigners are demanding action to protect citizens' rights.

Britons in Europe hold breath as MPs set to vote on Brexit deal
Photo AFP

On Tuesday the House of Commons, the UK's lower house, will vote on what is probably the most important parliamentary vote in Britain in decades.

MPs will decide whether to back Prime Minister Theresa May's much criticized Brexit Withdrawal Agreement or vote it down and provoke parliamentary chaos.

No group of people will be more glued to TV screens than the 1.2 million Brits living throughout Europe, whose futures and indeed peace of mind and quality of life hinge on the result.

If the Brexit deal is passed by MPs in Westminster it will at least allow most Britons in Europe to continue as they were, albeit without the freedom of onward movement that will impact many livelihoods.

But if Theresa May's deal is rejected then it leaves Britons in Europe living in yet more anxious limbo and facing the prospect of all the upheaval that would come as a result of the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal.

'934 days of limbo'

Kalba Meadows from the British in Europe (BiE) and Remain in France Together (RIFT) campaign groups told The Local the situation for Britons living in the EU is nothing short of “shameful”.

“While the eyes of the UK and EU are on politicians and the vote, we, the ordinary Brits living in the EU, are on day 934 of our limbo and still have no idea what our status will be in just 74 days time.

“We should have been removed from the equation months ago through a separate citizens' rights agreement covering us and the EU citizens living in the UK. “

The fact that two and a half years after the shock referendum in June 2016 the futures of British citizens in Europe and of EU nationals in the UK still hang in the balance shows they are just an afterthought to those in charge of negotiations, said Meadows.

The impact of living for so long with so little certainty over what the future holds has had a devastating impact on the mental and physical health of many, particularly retirees, who have seen their pensions decimated by the falling pound.

“The human cost of what's happening now is huge: not just the phenomenal stress of living with this ongoing uncertainty – which we're seeing every single day in our members – but the sense that as human beings we don't really matter enough to either the UK or EU. Frankly, it's shameful,” said Meadows.

READ ALSO: 'Better than no deal': Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May's deal succeeds?

The desire for the limbo to end means many Brits in Europe are hoping Theresa May's bill is backed by MPs.

“If there is going to be a Brexit then for us UK citizens living in the EU May's deal is a good one,” said Robert Neil, a British resident of Crete, Greece. “It has lots of certainty and guarantees, unlike a no deal. A no deal could be a disaster.”

But many Britons in Europe believe the deal should be rejected because it denies them the right to onward freedom of movement and leaves them “landlocked” in the country they are currently residing in.

Many are still holding out for a second referendum and would be prepared to go through a few more anxious weeks and months if it means the British people had the chance to vote again.

Paul Hearn, a Briton based in France said: “My hope is that Parliament will stop Brexit, soon after voting against the proposed deal, adding that “a People's Vote is the only fallback position.”

If, as expected, Theresa May loses her vote then British in Europe, an umbrella group for campaigners across Europe is demanding the Prime Minister takes action to secure the rights of British citizens in the EU and the three million EU nationals in Britain.

“If Theresa May loses the vote tonight, she should immediately commit to ring-fencing the existing rights of @The3Million and @BritishInEurope and call on the EU27 to do the same, in an international treaty. It would give people the security to go about their lives as before,” the group tweeted.

But given citizens have been treated as bargaining chips throughout the whole negotiation process it is unlikely that Theresa May will suddenly start acting in their interests.

The reality is that more limbo, more uncertainty, and more anxiety lies ahead.

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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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