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BREXIT

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One

In the first instalment of a three-part series investigating how different, often separate, campaign groups of Brits across the EU led to a pan-European campaign, we retraced the early steps of the Votes for Life movement. Which led us to a near-centenarian British war veteran in a quaint Italian coastal town.

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One
Harry Shindler reviews a document in his office and home in Porto d'Ascoli. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

Harry Shindler, 97, was part of the Allied landings in Anzio near Rome to liberate Italy from fascism in 1944. He eventually settled in the country, which he had first visited as a soldier, in 1982 with his wife and son. His campaign to get Brits abroad the vote has made him a legendary figure whose campaigning work inspired the citizens’ rights group British in Europe.

“So many Brits abroad have gotten involved. They’re all coming together,” Harry Shindler told The Local at his home in Porto d’Ascoli, on the Adriatic coast in Italy.

Jane Golding joined the campaign for the so-called votes for life' bill in 2011. The Berlin-based lawyer and co-chair of British in Europe – the grassroots campaign to secure the rights of Brits living in the EU – credits Shindler’s work on the votes for life bill as the genesis of the pan-European British rights campaign, a first movement of its kind by Brits spread across Europe.

If the Overseas Electoral Bill becomes law it could bring up to five million Brits back into the voting framework in the UK. At the moment, Brits who have lived outside of the UK for 15 years lose the right to vote – they become disenfranchised. In such a scenario, they can no longer participate in parliamentary elections nor in people’s votes, such as the highly-divisive Brexit referendum.

The Overseas Electoral Bill aims to change that. It has already survived two readings in parliament and cross-examination in four sittings in the House of Commons. It faces the third, and crucial, reading before the House of Commons on January 25th. The largest obstacle after that would likely be minor revisions at the House of Lords. 

“This is the last hurdle at the Commons,” Harry Shindler, surrounded by memorabilia from a life few can expect to live, told The Local. Shindler has been lobbying for overseas Brits to be re-enfranchised since he found out he couldn’t vote in UK parliamentary elections in 1997. That didn’t sit lightly with the sharp and engaged war veteran.

The Italian dictionary Harry Shindler MBE bought in southern Italy in 1943 before landing in Anzio, to fight fascism, in 1944. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

“The war 70 years ago was about bringing back the right of people to vote,” says Harry, who is the star of an award-winning film (currently on the festival circuit) – My war is not over.

In the documentary by Italian director Bruno Bigoni, Shindler recounts how he acts upon requests, often from family members, to find British soldiers lost in the WW2 Italian campaign. 

His method involves tracking down what happened to British soldiers in regimental war diaries, where a day's warfare was recorded in an hour-by-hour log. That’s how Shindler found out the truth about Corporal Waters, father of Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. But that’s another story, documented in the book My war is not over by Italian journalist Marco Patucchi.

 
From a young age, this charming Londoner and colossal figure has chosen to engage in struggles. The campaigns that bear his mark are many: from lobbies for regulation of licensing houses, to defeating fascism or changing the British electoral system. In his office, one placard denotes he is a member of ANPI, the Italian partisan organisation. Another reminds visitors that Harry Shindler has been awarded the title Member of the British Empire (MBE); an honorary doctorate from the American University in Rome sits near a photo of Harry with Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. 
 

Harry Shindler and Roger Waters at a ceremony to commemorate the British soldiers who served in Italy in World War Two and whose resting place in Italy, as well as their fate, remains unknown. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Should the Overseas Electoral Bill be approved in its final sitting in the House of Commons next month, only the House of Lords will stand between potentially millions of Brits abroad being able to register for UK elections via the last constituency where they lived in the UK.

Shindler has been instrumental in getting the bill this far, yet the votes for life bill has its heroes across Europe. The late Brian Cave, who together with former Conservative party staffer Roger Boaden also worked on the campaign to get Brits in France the winter fuel allowance, is another “long-term campaigner”. Cave was involved in the early stages of the votes for live movement, Boaden tells The Local. 

READ ALSO: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Brian Cave authored a blog called Pensioners Debout in which he campaigned for many aspects affecting the lives of elderly British citizens in the EU, Boaden recalls of his friend who died in early 2018. “It's because of Brian that I got involved,” says Boaden. 

Boaden has been campaigning to ensure that pensioners in countries like France, Spain and Cyprus can receive the fuel allowance paid to economically vulnerable pensioners by the UK government. British pensioners who would normally be eligible for the allowance of between £100 and £300 (€110–330 approx) are denied the right in those countries based on studies by the Department for Working Pensions (DWP) that estimate the average winter temperatures in France are higher than in the UK.

Boaden, through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, has sought to prove that feasibility studies of the weather in some of those countries showed that certain areas were clearly colder than the UK. He claims the government manipulated the average temperatures in the UK and the affected countries, as well as the criteria for judging the UK hotter, than, say, France in winter.

 

Roger Boaden. Photo: ECREU. 

When the Brexit referendum happened in 2016, Boaden, Cave and others founded Expat Citizens Rights in the EU (ECREU), a group working on the rights of British citizens in France that counts 10,800 members.

“It was a natural evolution,” says Boaden. “We already had quite a lot of information on how people were suffering.” Across the EU, after the Brexit referendum, groups of Brits from different countries came together to form a movement of lawyers, spokespeople and grassroots campaigners. We'll be telling that chapter in Part Two of this story. 

One of the most unusual yet noteworthy facets of the volunteer movement of Brits lobbying EU28 governments to safeguard and ring-fence the rights of those on the front lines of Brexit, Brits in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, is the non-political aspect.

Harry Shindler is a lifelong member of the Labour party, the same party Jane Golding used to work for; Roger Boaden worked for the Conservatives for 30 years. Other core British in Europe staff worked for the Liberal Democrats.

“What’s important is that it’s not party political,” Harry Shindler tells the Local from his flat in the Italian municipality that has made him an honorary citizen. “I’m working with a lot of Conservatives even though I’m not one,” he added.

Harry Shindler at home in Italy. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Boaden says the votes for life campaign has been unique in its cross-party ability to get Brits across Europe on the same page on an issue.

“At the core is the need to scrap the 15-year rule for overseas voters and rightly ensure that this group can vote for life,” Glyn Davies, the MP who presented the Bill to Parliament in 2017, said in the House of Commons’ first of four sittings on the bill in October and November.

But the Overseas Electoral Bill also has its critics.

The Labour Party has taken a lukewarm, if not opposition, stance to the bill. “The Bill as it stands would demand a hugely complex administrative task of our electoral registration officers,” Christian Matheson, a Labour MP for the City of Chester, argued in the House of Commons. Matheson cited budget cuts as a further reason to avoid giving the electoral commission more work.

“They’re putting administration before the right of people to vote,” Shindler, who will be at the House of Commons for the final reading on January 25th, tells The Local.

“I pointed out to them that by the same argument a city could reach a point where they stop people voting because they don’t have enough money,” says Shindler.

Harry Shindler with his honorary doctorate from the American University of Rome. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

The votes for life campaign morphed into a broader movement in defence of the rights of citizens after June 23rd, 2016: the Brexit referendum.

What started with a handful of British campaigners has led to a powerful pan-European movement. That movement, under the leadership of the British in Europe umbrella group, is pushing to hold the British government, in light of Brexit, to account on the rights of British citizens living in Europe.

“The EU has given Europe 70 years of peace,” says Harry Shindler. He has been here for each one of them. And longer. Citing “dangerous” populists and the spectre of the 1930s looming over many parts of Europe, Shindler says the votes for life campaign is about “principle”.  

Part Two: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Part Three: How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe

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BREXIT

‘So stressful’: How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple’s Tuscan dream

One couple from Manchester found the home of their Tuscan retirement dreams, but the stalemate over a UK-Italy driving licence agreement is throwing their future into question.

'So stressful': How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple's Tuscan dream

Iain and Lynn Gosling lived and worked all their lives in and around Manchester – at a bank, where they met, then in various schools – but had always dreamed of retiring in Tuscany.

In 2018, with the Brexit clock ticking, they decided to take the plunge, and after a lengthy Place in the Sun-style hunt, they finally found their ideal home.

The podere (farmhouse) they chose just outside the town of Pomerance, in the province of Pisa, checked all their boxes: it had an olive grove, was close enough to the beach, had a friendly local community, and the town was particularly invested in green energy, sourcing most of its power from renewables.

Most importantly, it was just over an hour’s drive from Pisa airport, meaning they could regularly go back and visit family in the UK.

READ ALSO: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

“We’d holidayed in Tuscany for 20 years, and the views and everything were even better than where we’d been holidaying. So we kind of thought we struck gold really,” says Lynn.

“When we saw it, we just knew, and when we went into the town it was such a good, welcoming feeling.”

Iain and Lynn's podere in Pomerance.

Iain and Lynn’s podere in Pomerance. Source: Iain Gosling.

The couple began building a new life, learning Italian and befriending local residents. They were careful to take the necessary steps to secure their future in Italy before the Brexit deadline, registering with the town hall and later obtaining carta di soggiorno residency cards.

But – like many other British nationals in Italy – the pair didn’t anticipate that almost two years on from Brexit, negotiations for a reciprocal driving licence agreement between the two countries would have stalled. It’s an ongoing state of limbo that threatens to make their retirement dream unworkable.

While with hindsight the pair would have exchanged their driving licences before the Brexit deadline, they believed a deal would soon be reached – especially as the UK allows EU licence-holders to drive with almost no restrictions.

“If we cannot drive in the short term, I’m sure we can find a way round it somehow,” says Iain. “Longer term? No, not really.”

READ ALSO: Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

A 12-month grace period granted in 2021 is due to expire in January unless an agreement is reached, forcing UK drivers to choose between taking an Italian driving exam that could well turn out to be unnecessary, or gambling on a last-minute deal that risks leaving them without a valid licence if it doesn’t materialise.

For Iain and Lynn, who live a four-minute drive from the town on hilly country roads without access to public transport or pavements, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice.

“I’d be absolutely lost without driving,” says Lynn, who judges that without a car the couple would have to make daily hour-long round walks into town to buy basic necessities.

They decided that Iain would take the exam so that at least one of them would still be able to drive in the absence of a deal, and booked his theory test for November to give him time to prepare.

As a minimum of 32 days must pass between passing the theory test and sitting the practical exam, he’ll only just secure his Italian licence in time in the event that there’s no agreement – if he manages to pass both on the first go.

READ ALSO: Some of the best learner sites for taking your Italian driving test

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse.

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse. Source: Iain Gosling.

“So – no pressure on the theory test,” says Iain, who plans to fly back early from Christmas holidays in the UK to sit his practical exam if he succeeds in passing the former.

The couple know they could have begun the process earlier. But the test requires answering the same theory questions as a native Italian speaker and a taking mandatory six hours of practical lessons, and it isn’t cheap – Iain and Lynn estimate the total cost to be just under €1,000.

What’s more, those who pass an Italian driving test are classed as new drivers (neopatentati) for three years, which comes with a range of restrictions on speed limits and vehicle engine size, and a zero tolerance policy on alcohol.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

All this has made taking the test a last resort for people who believed the UK and Italian governments would have reached an agreement by this point – or have at least issued clear guidance as to what action UK licence-holders should take.

The UK’s ambassador to Italy stresses that negotiations continue – though has encouraged British residents to book an Italian driving test.

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Rome told The Local in October: “Since August we have continued and intensified further our work with our Italian colleagues and have made progress towards our shared objective.”

Lynn says: “Over the last six months it was very optimistic, everything we were hearing. It’s just in the past two months that we’ve thought, well, wait a minute.”

If Iain doesn’t manage to pass the test before the deadline and no deal is reached, “we are stuck,” he says.

“This situation is so stressful.”

READ ALSO: How UK drivers in Italy face new problems after passing Italian driving test

The couple fear that without the ability to drive, their current lifestyle would be unsustainable.

“You wake up thinking about it, and you go to bed thinking about it,” says Lynn. “Anxiety, that’s how it makes you feel.”

“Someone will turn around and say, well why didn’t you take your driving tests 12 months ago so you’re not in this situation?” says Iain. “But if all the signs were encouraging from the ambassador, we thought well OK, we can keep our benefits here and we don’t want to lose them.”

While the embassy insists that negotiating the agreement is its top priority, Iain worries that the recent political upheaval in both the UK and Italy has pushed the issue on to the back burner.

“We have no choice but to have faith in our British representatives to deliver and soon too, because the previous regulation extension was far too late,” Iain says. “We need to know now so we can make definite plans and contingencies.”

Despite the stress, Iain and Lynn are determined to do all they can to find a way to remain in Pomerance, where they say they’ve been embraced by local residents and have become good friends with their Italian neighbours who occupy the other half of their semi-detached property.

“We don’t want to give this up,” says Iain. “We love it here and we want to stay.”

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