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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.

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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BREXIT

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

The UK Ambassador to Spain has given an update on the driving licence debacle, with nothing new to genuinely give hope to the thousands of in-limbo drivers whose increasing frustration has led one group to try and take matters into their own hands.

It’s been almost five months since UK driving licence holders residing in Spain were told they could no longer drive on Spanish roads. 

Since that fateful May 1st, an unnamed number of the approximately 400,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain, as well as hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards and foreign nationals who passed their driving test in the UK, have not been able to use their vehicles in Spain or even rent one. 

What adds insult to injury is that British tourists visiting Spain can rent a car without any issue. The fact that Spanish licence holders living in the UK can also continue to exchange their permits in the UK 21 months after Brexit came into force is equally hard to swallow.

READ MORE: ‘An avoidable nightmare’ – How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle

The latest update from UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott on September 27th has done little to quell the anger and sense of helplessness felt by those caught in this bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“I wanted to talk to you personally about the driving licences negotiations, which I know are continuing to have a serious impact on many of you,” Elliott began by saying.

“As the government’s representative in Spain, I hear and understand your frustrations. I too am frustrated by the pace.

“We previously thought, we genuinely thought, that we’d have concluded negotiations by the summer. 

“Many of you have quite rightly mentioned that I expressed the hope to you that we’d have you back on the road by the end of July.

“Now the truth is it has taken much longer, as there have been unforeseen issues that we have been working very hard to resolve. 

“And I’m as disappointed as you are by the length of time that this is actually taking. 

“But, please, be assured that we are resolving those issues, one by one. There are only a couple of issues left, but they are complex.”

It has previously been suggested by the UK Embassy that Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the exchange agreement, and that British authorities were reluctant to share said information on British drivers’ records, including possible infractions. 

Whether this is still one of the causes of the holdups is unknown, given how opaque the Embassy is being in this regard. 

“We’re working on this every day, it remains a priority,” the UK Ambassador continued.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. 

“I know too that you want a timescale and you want an update after every meeting.

“But I’m afraid I just can’t give you those things in this negotiation.” 

The ambassador’s words are unlikely to appease those who are still unable to drive. 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called “Invasion of the British embassy in Madrid for the DL exchange issue” was set up, which so far has more than 400 members. 

The group’s administrator, Pascal Siegmund, is looking to set up a meeting with the British Embassy and Spanish authorities to shed light on the impact that not being allowed to drive is having on the life of thousands of UK licence holders in Spain. 

Many of those affected are sharing their stories online, explaining how, due to administrative errors on the part of Spain’s DGT traffic authority, they were unable to process their licence exchange before the deadline. 

This contrasts with the little sympathy shown by UK licence holders who were able to exchange and other commentators, who accuse those in limbo of not having bothered to complete the process, arguing that it’s essentially their own fault.

READ ALSO: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault 

“Many of you also continue to ask why you can’t drive while the talks are continuing,” Elliott remarked.

“It is not in the gift of the UK government to reinstate the measures which previously allowed you to continue to drive whilst the negotiations were ongoing earlier in the year. 

“As we said previously, we did request the reinstatement of those measures several times, but this wasn’t granted.”

It’s worth noting that since the news broke on May 1st that UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than six months could no longer drive, no Spanish news outlet has covered the story again. 

Pressure from citizen groups such as the one recently set up and increased awareness about the issue in English-language news sites such as The Local Spain is perhaps the best chance in-limbo drivers have of their voices being heard and the driving licence debacle being finally fixed. 

“I’d say we’re genuinely still making progress,” UK Ambassador Elliott concluded, practically the same message as in previous updates.

“I get how frustrating it is to hear that, but we are making progress. We’re in discussions almost daily about outstanding issues. 

“And I remain very optimistic that we will reach an agreement and hope it will be soon. 

“But as I say, I can’t give you a definitive timetable. 

“And so, the advice that we have been giving all along, which is that you should consider taking the Spanish test if you do need to drive urgently, remains valid. Though we appreciate that’s hard.”

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