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What Britons in Europe need to know about the UK government’s ‘votes for life’ pledge

It's been promised before, but now the UK government says it will act to ensure that British citizens living abroad do not lose their right to vote in the UK even if they have been abroad for over 15 years. Here's what we know about the proposals.

What Britons in Europe need to know about the UK government's 'votes for life' pledge
Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

The move was first announced in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, with further details announced by the British government today.

But what exactly are the changes and what does “votes for life” really mean?

What are ‘votes for life’?

The new measures 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.

Currently, British citizens lose their voting rights after living abroad for 15 years.

The changes, which will form part of the Elections Bill, will 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.

Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, told The Local: “We have been disappointed many times over, as government manifesto promises came to nought, but this time looks and feels very different. 

“We have a government bill, money was set aside in the recent budget, and there seems to be a plan. 

“I know many will be sceptical after previous disappointments, but I believe we are finally on our way.” 

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 to be put in place surrounding this. The Local has asked the UK government for more details on what these rules will be.

British people wishing to register to vote under the new measures will also have to show a “demonstrable connection” to a UK address, according to the government document.

Furthermore, individuals will have to register at the last address where they were registered to vote, or at 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.

The government say “if none of the above are possible, the applicant will not be able to register.”

Why is the UK government making 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 better late than never.

A press release from the UK government states 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.

Lord True, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office, said: “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.”

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.

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MIGRANT CRISIS

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”

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