‘Let’s not get distracted’: EU deals blow to chances of ring-fencing rights of Britons in Europe

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator says that efforts to ring-fence the rights of Britons to protect them from a no-deal Brexit would be complicated and a "distraction" from the main aim of getting British Prime Minister Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement ratified.

'Let's not get distracted': EU deals blow to chances of ring-fencing rights of Britons in Europe
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, left, speaking with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

Michel Barnier, who represents the EU in Brexit negotiations, has dealt a blow to the chances of the citizen rights of Britons around Europe being ring-fenced.

The British government was forced to write to the EU to press for the protection of the citizens rights section of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement after it lost a “historic” vote on an amendment in the British parliament in February.

But in a reply published on Thursday, Barnier stressed that the rights of Britons in the EU were a priority for Brussels and each individual member state, but that ring-fencing would be too complicated given that so much of the Withdrawal Agreement is linked to citizens' rights.

“It is therefore far from straightforward to identify which provisions would need to be 'carved out' as part of the ring-fencing exercise proposed by the House of Commons… with the risk of unequal treatment of certain categories of citizens,” Barnier wrote.

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Barnier stressed that preparations have been carried out in individual countries to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

“In the event of this undesired scenario the rights of British nationals residing in the European Union would remain a priority … No British national would be left in the dark in such a situation.”

But Barnier said that the efforts of Brussels were focused on making sure Theresa May's much-maligned Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and brought into force.

“We should not be distracted from this essential objective,” he said.

READ ALSO: 'Securing the rights of Britons in Europe is legally possible, they just need to try'

The Westminster amendment which prompted the British government to force the issue of ring-fencing rights with the EU had the support of both Leave and Remain-supporting MPs.

It cost the author of the amendment, MP Alberto Costa, his job in the government but was warmly welcomed by campaign groups such as British in Europe.

The amendment forced May to seek a deal with the EU, at the earliest possible opportunity, to ring-fence the citizens' rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement before Brexit Day – currently April 12th.

Ring-fencing citizens' rights is something campaigners have long called for given the possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal and the impact that would have on the futures of British immigrants throughout the EU, whose existing rights would be lost immediately unless countries decide to act.

Theresa May might still bring back her Brexit deal for a third vote in the British parliament, hoping MPs will pass it after she on Wednesday offered to resign if her deal is passed.

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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.