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BRITAIN'S FUTURE IN EUROPE

EUROPEAN UNION

Brits: Why vote away your right to move in Europe?

The right to move around Europe is an incredible privilege. Brits about to vote in their referendum should know that this right is at risk, says The Local's Managing Editor James Savage.

Brits: Why vote away your right to move in Europe?
The last view of Britain: the White Cliffs of Dover from a ferry. Photo: Luctor/WikimediaCommons

The question on Facebook from a clever, cosmopolitan schoolfriend set the alarm bells ringing: ‘If we leave the EU, will it really make it harder for us to move to other countries?’

The answer to this is surely that it might. Yet it’s worrying if many young Brits don’t know what’s at stake.

The thing is, Brits rather like their freedom to move around Europe – but the campaign for Britain to leave the EU has focused heavily on restricting the right of other Europeans to live and work in the UK. 

According to a revealing poll by YouGov in December, two thirds of Brits thought they should have the right to live and work in other EU countries – yet only one third believed that other Europeans should have the right to live in Britain.

In other words, Britain is about to go and vote on a subject which, terrifyingly, it can’t be bothered to focus on long enough to form a coherent view. The Leave campaign has so far managed to create a vague impression that you can restrict immigration to Britain without equivalent restrictions being placed on Brits who want to move abroad.

Perhaps this reflects the way Brits talk about migration: Brits on the continent are expats; Europeans in Britain are migrants. 

Unfortunately for any British diplomats charged with interpreting the will of the people in negotiations, international law doesn’t recognize this distinction. As far as the negotiators will be concerned, 100,000 Bulgarian immigrant kitchen fitters have at least the same value as 100,000 sunburnt British expat pensioners.

Let’s be clear about one thing: a vote for Britain to leave the EU will be a vote to cut immigration from Europe. It would mean becoming even more detached than Norway or Switzerland, which have pretty much the same immigration rules as EU member states. Immigration is the most important issue for Leave voters and it has been the main focus of the Leave campaign. And if you stop EU citizens coming to Britain, Brits will be prevented from moving to the EU.

This would be a shame: the right to move from one European country to another has perhaps increased Britons’ personal freedom more than any other reform since the country joined in 1973. The movement the other way has also been positive – people from the rest of the EU who live in the UK are an asset, paying far more in tax than they take out in benefits.

Like over two million other Brits, I’m biased: I’ve used this freedom myself – and I’d recommend any fellow Brit to try it. At the age of 21 I hopped onto a train in London, hopped off in Paris and jumped into a job. I then fell in love with a Swede and landed in Sweden, where I launched a career that has been more stimulating than anything I’d have done at home.

And whether you want to start a lingerie shop in Madrid, be a crime-scene cleaner in Germany, or a gardener in Sweden, the opportunities are out there.

There are lots of compelling reasons for Britain to stay in the EU – there’s a consensus that it’s better for the country’s economy, it serves Britain’s strategic interests and our allies say it’s where we belong.

But these reasons, while vitally important, perhaps don’t resonate on an emotional level. But our right to put down roots in Vienna, Rome, Berlin, Krakow or Nice – just because we want to – should. It is a privilege worth protecting, and I suspect young Britons understand this. It’s important that they know that this right is at risk.

 

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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