Voters in the UK go to the polls on December 12 in what’s been dubbed the “Brexit election” – but many who stand to be directly affected by the outcome have no say in the matter.
Despite a surge in registrations, it’s thought that hundreds of thousands of an estimated 1.2 million Britons living in other European Union countries are not eligible to vote as they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.
Meanwhile, Britons who can vote have been advised to vote by proxy, following many reports of problems with postal votes in recent elections.
After Brexit, UK residents on the continent face a change in their status and uncertainty over important aspects of the lives – despite safeguards contained in the divorce deal renegotiated by Boris Johnson. Some are already experiencing administrative problems, even though the UK is still an EU member.
The ‘Brexit election’
Dr Michaela Benson of Goldsmiths College in London has led a research study since May 2017 into the lives of “BrExpats”, UK citizens living in the EU. She says that for them – as with EU nationals living in the UK – it is hard to overestimate the importance of the general election.
“I’ve not seen this level of campaigning before. The extent to which this is ‘the Brexit election’ is striking… for British people in Europe this is intimately tied up with Brexit and their place in the EU,” she told Euronews.
Nearly 80% of British EU residents are of working age, Dr Benson says, contrary to the stereotypical portrayal of “sun-seeking patriotic pensioners in Spain or middle-class couples doing up a Dordogne property”. Many are in precarious situations due to Brexit.
The EU divorce deal – if ratified – guarantees their right to stay in their EU country of residence once Britain leaves. But Britons will lose the automatic right to move to live and work in other EU countries. Uncertainty surrounds other matters, such as pensions and access to healthcare.
Postal v proxy voting
More than 38,000 Britons living abroad are said to have registered to vote since the last general election in 2017 – bringing the total to well above 300,000, a ten-fold increase on the number registered in 2015.
Britons living in the EU are being advised by local councils and campaigners to vote by proxy in the general election, because of a lack of trust in the post.
Last May’s European elections brought complaints from many Britons living in the EU that they had been unable to vote as they did not receive ballot papers in time. Campaigners are now exploring legal action for the “denial of democracy” because of the difficulties voters experienced.
“Where people were registered to vote in Britain, they were finding postal vote ballot papers were arriving too late to be able to send them back first class, there were reports of people paying large amounts of money to send them back in time,” Michaela Benson said.
“At least with proxy vote you know vote has been cast and counted.”
Watch the interview with Dr Michaela Benson on Good Morning Europe in the video player above.
Disenfranchised by the 15-year rule
Hundreds of thousands of people – more than 60% of all British residents in EU countries – are thought to be deprived of a vote because of the 15-year rule. The UK’s failure to change the law has sparked an outcry.
The Conservatives promise to abolish the arbitrary limit, but have not delivered on previous repeated pledges when in government. The opposition Labour manifesto does not address the matter. The Liberal Democrats vow to “enable all UK citizens living abroad to vote for MPs in separate overseas constituencies”.
A Private Member’s Bill introduced early in 2019 was effectively blocked by a Eurosceptic Conservative MP who “talked it out” under an arcane procedure known as filibustering.
“The question of overseas voting rights continues to be dominated… by party politics,” argued Dr Susan Collard of the University of Sussex, following the debate in March. “It is those who will become, or remain, disenfranchised by the 15 year rule that have paid the highest price.”
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives – ahead in opinion polls – are campaigning on a pledge to take the UK out of the EU by January 31, the latest extension deadline agreed by the EU.
The divorce deal safeguards residency and other rights for UK and EU nationals, though they will need to register in their host countries in order to stay in the long term – and Britons will lose their right to live and work in other EU nations.
Dr Michaela Benson’s team have detected some changes in attitude towards UK residents seeking to anticipate the extra red tape. Much of her own research has focused on France, where Britons who have long not needed residency cards will need them in future.
“People who go along to apply get told: ‘you don’t need one, or ‘you’re not eligible for one because UK has left EU’, or ‘I can give you one but it’ll be invalid as soon as the UK has left the EU,” she says.
Others applying for jobs have been told not to turn up for interviews, Dr Benson adds, or are in precarious situations further jeopardised by Brexit. “For people already suffering from chronic illnesses it’s destabilising, because of uncertainty over their future access to health care. Some treatments are only available in France. People are saying ‘if I had to go back to the UK I couldn’t get access to those treatments on the NHS’.”
Still more concerns have been aired – often by worried residents at special Brexit meetings organised by British embassies. Among them: people who supply services across borders, those who are worried about pensions which risk being frozen under rules covering Britons living in non-EU countries, or workers asking whether their qualifications will be recognised abroad.
Britons abroad ‘unrepresented’
Meanwhile, the UK electoral system gives Britons living abroad no direct representation. Unlike voters in the UK, they have no direct link to a local constituency. Campaigners would like to see dedicated overseas representatives for expatriates.
Dr Benson argues that in contrast to other countries, the UK has a poor record on keeping a record of its own citizens who emigrate.
“The UK government has no idea who they are, or the terms on which they live, which is remarkable. The expat population is one of the largest overseas populations in the world, proportionately. The big question is why the government has no interest in its citizens abroad when other countries do pay attention to their nationals. This may change if there was overseas representation.”