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EUROPEAN UNION

‘Stop telling expat Remainers to come home – it’s not that simple’

"Come home, then". This was a comment I received on Twitter a few nights ago in response to a point I had made about the situation of expats in the era of Brexit. Although curt, this comment was nothing like as rude as others that we 'remainers' have been subject to in recent months.

'Stop telling expat Remainers to come home - it's not that simple'
A man waves European Union and United Kingdom flags together at a London protest. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP

When, I keep asking myself, did my tolerant and open country become intolerant and closed? It is a heartbreaking change to watch.

“Come home”: I'm afraid that for many expats, including me, the situation is not as simple as that. It is a myth that we are all slugging gin on sun loungers in sunny British enclaves and it is equally a myth that we are all rich.

It would not be financially possible for most of us to come home, and I am not the only one who would have nowhere to go in my native country.

Therefore, when we raise concerns about the future of our pensions or access to healthcare in the countries where we now live, they are real concerns; a freezing of our pensions would spell poverty in old age for thousands of us and the threat of cutting off our right to healthcare, at the time in our lives when we are likely to need it most, fills us with fear.

Now, before I am shot down by those who think that, having decided no longer to live in the “green and pleasant land”, I deserve everything that is – or, more likely, isn't – coming to me, and before I am told that, for the same reason, I have no right to any British pension at all , I would like to point out the following: I believe I served Britain tolerably well in my role as a teacher and then as a lecturer. The schools I taught in were far from élitist and I worked hard for my pension. 

With regard to healthcare, the agreement in place at the time I moved to Italy was one of entitlement because there is a reciprocal agreement in place for Italians living and working in Britain. I have never sponged off either system in my life. When you move to another country, you do so under a certain set of circumstances and you do not expect retrospective legislation to pull the rug out from under your British feet.

Incidentally, if the value of people's pensions had been cut by up to 25 percent in the UK , there would be uproar, yet this is exactly what has already happened to expats since the Brexit referendum and we are all afraid to say so publicly because we will be branded “selfish, élitist remoaners”. Well, it is about time someone said it and I do so here.

Another fear we have is that, even if a “right to stay” agreement is reached, it may be dependent upon some sort of property qualification. No, I am not restoring a castle or tending my vineyard – like many other expats, I pay my way but I do not own property in either country.

We do not figure in the British Prime Minister's narrow vision of the “JAMs” [families who are “just about managing”] but that is often the reality for expats. Oh, and I'm not out here with family, either – I am truly dispossessed!

Why, some of you may wonder, would anyone want to leave Britain in the first place? My answer is because I am a Modern Languages graduate and I fell in love with Italy at an early age.

Loving another country does not mean that you love your own any the less; in fact you can come to love it more, because you see it with new eyes from abroad. Moreover, having had the chance to teach in Italy, I believe I have contributed in my small way to the spreading of British culture here.

When the British state educated me and trained me as a teacher, it did not do so in order that I might live exclusively in one country or the other; it did so in order that I would have a choice. That's what education does. I was given the ability to make a choice and I made it, believing, like others, that I was protected in it by treaty.

That our native land now wants to rip that treaty up is hardly our fault and we are appalled by our formerly gentle nation's abandonment of its own citizens in the EU. This is not the Britain that I recognize and it is not the free and fair Britain that I have told so many Italian students about.

I am hurt, as I am sure other expats are hurt, by the name-calling we have had to endure: I am not a “remoaner”; I am merely someone who wishes to embrace more than one culture and my language skills have enabled me to do that fully. Where was I on the day that such a wish became a crime in Britain?

The general view in Britain seems to be that three million expats are just a few snail-eaters who do not matter and I have no information on how many of us still have voting rights there. But elections and referendums, as we have seen, can turn on very few votes.

Perhaps one day soon the British government will wake up to the fact that we matter. I hope it does not do so too late.

This opinion piece was originally posted on the blog, Sicily Scene: A Welshwoman's Life in Sicily. See the original post here.
 

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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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