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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. 😉

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'We will be ready' vows France, amid fears of UK border chaos

The EU’s new EES system comes into effect in 2023 and many people – including the boss of the Port of Dover and the former UK ambassador to France – have raised concerns that the extra checks will lead to travel chaos on the UK-France border, and see a repeat of the long queues experienced last summer.

Port of Dover CEO Doug Bannister told The Local that he feared “tailbacks out of the port and throughout Kent” because the new system could take up to 10 minutes to process a car with four passengers, as opposed to 90 seconds currently.

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But French border control have insisted that they will be ready, replying to questions from the European Commission with “Oui, La France sera prête” (yes, France will be ready).

French officials said they had already undertaken extension preparation and would begin test runs of the new system in French border posts at the end of this year.

document shared recently by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties, shows how countries are preparing. 

“France has prepared very actively and will be on schedule for an EES implementation in compliance with the EU regulation,” French authorities say.

“The French authorities have carried out numerous studies and analyses, in cooperation with infrastructure managers, to map passenger flows at each border crossing post… and evaluate the EES impact on waiting times,” the document says. 

However, despite the preparation, the French admit that long waits at the border remain a worry, adding: “the prospect of the impact of EES on waiting times at the borders worries infrastructure managers. The fact remains that fluidity remains a concern, and that exchanges are continuing with each border post manager to make progress on this point.”

The EES system is due to come into effect in May 2023 and will be applied at all EU external borders – find full details on how it works HERE.

However there has been particular concern about the France-UK border due to three things; the high volume of traffic (in total over 60 million passengers cross the border each year); the fact that many travel by car on ferries and the Eurotunnel (while the EES system seems more designed with foot passengers in mind); and the Le Touquet agreement which means that French border control agents work in the British ports of Dover and Folkestone and at London St Pancras station.

EES is essentially a more thorough passport checking process with passengers required to provide biometric information including fingerprints and facial scans – border checks will therefore take longer per passenger, and this could have a big effect at busy crossing points like Dover.

The UK’s former ambassador to France, Lord Ricketts, told The Local: “I think the EES, in particular, will be massively disruptive at the Channel ports.”

The EU consultation documents also revealed more details of how EES will work on a practical level for car passengers – those travelling by ferry or Eurotunnel to France – with border agents set to use computer tablets to gather biometric information like fingerprints so that passengers don’t have to get out of their cars.

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Doug Bannister added that Dover agents were “awaiting an invitation” to France to see how the new systems will work. 

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