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EUROPEAN UNION

Survey: Could Brits in Europe put the brakes on Brexit?

Britain’s upcoming referendum on whether to remain in the EU will have a huge effect on the two million Brits living in Europe - and many of these expats have a right to vote. But will they, and if so, how?

Survey: Could Brits in Europe put the brakes on Brexit?
Britain’s upcoming referendum on whether to remain in the EU will have a huge effect on the two million Brits living in Europe. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

In order to be able to vote in the referendum, expats need to hold a British passport and to have been resident in the UK within the last 15 years. Just under a quarter of our respondents fit those criteria – a total of 673 people. And of those who had the right to cast a vote, an overwhelming majority (86 percent) said they were planning to do so.

As to those who were not planning to vote, the main reason for abstaining (selected by 49 percent of the non-voters) was that it was too complicated to register.

Meanwhile, 11 percent felt that their vote did not matter, while seven percent didn’t think they would be affected by the outcome of the referendum and a further seven percent did not understand enough about the issue.

Of those who intended to vote in the referendum, only 75 percent had already registered – and of the remaining 25 percent, a majority (68 percent) did not know how to vote.

If you are an expat living in the EU and want to have your say in the referendum but don't know how, read our ten-point guide to registering here.

But how are expats planning to vote? Our survey revealed that, with over two months to go until the referendum date, 94 percent had already made up their minds, 67 percent were firmly in the ‘Remain’ camp, while 28 percent were planning to vote ‘Leave’.

James McGrory, Chief Campaign Spokesman of Britain Stronger In Europe, said: “This survey shows the overwhelming consensus among Brits living abroad for remaining in Europe. As a full EU member, British people can travel, live and work freely across Europe, and they’re entitled to free healthcare if something goes wrong.

“If we left, no-one can guarantee that would continue. The 'Leave' campaign's plan for Britain – to pull the UK economy out of the single market altogether – could see every British expat’s automatic right to live abroad thrown into doubt.” 

Barbara McLeod, a British business consultant who has lived in Italy for three years, first in Rome and now in Milan, agreed.

“I am for staying in to keep it easy for me to work and travel in the UK,” she told The Local.

“I think the UK will lose jobs, trade and global influence if out of the EU. We're stronger together!”

But another long-term British professional based in Rome is less convinced, despite being a seasoned expat.

“Remember those three-legged races at school? You would run 50 yards until the rope practically burned your leg off, and you collapsed in a heap,” he said.

“Well now imagine 28 countries with their legs tied together each trying to run in their own direction. The rope is frayed, as the bullies pull here and there and the young kids are getting trampled on. So is Brexit the answer? Possibly. I love Europeans – I went to school with them – That's why I think maybe we should save them from the EU.”

When contacted by The Local, a Vote Leave press officer said she was not in a position to comment on expat voters or the impact of the referendum on Brits living abroad. A spokesperson for the Better Off Out campaign, who did not wish to be named, said that their group hadn't had any contact with British expats. “I can't make a judgment on how expats would be affected by the referendum result – individuals can make their own minds up. We are concentrating on making a positive case to all voters and hope that those who wish to vote will recognize the benefits for the UK.”

However, some 58 percent of voters said they would be trying to persuade others to vote in a certain way – so don’t be surprised if you find the referendum an increasingly popular topic among your expat contacts. The most popular method for trying to sway their friends’ votes was in conversation (84 percent), while 46 percent said they would take to social media to spread the word. 

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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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