It’s hard for die-hard ‘Remainers’ like myself to find anything positive to say about last year’s EU referendum and its lamentable result. But actually, one good outcome of this otherwise catastrophic travesty of democracy was that it triggered a realization amongst many Britons living abroad that leaving the homeland does not necessarily entail a loss of voting rights. Even better, it inspired a series of campaigns targeting Brits living in other EU countries, urging them to register to vote, and this led to a huge increase in the number of overseas electors.
Following the introduction of voting rights for overseas citizens in the 1980s, few people actually registered. This was either through lack of interest or because the legislation was not well publicised, but also due to the procedural and bureaucratic obstacles inherent in the system. The introduction of on-line registration with Individual Electoral Registration (IER), implemented from 2014, transformed the cumbersome registration process into a simple few clicks, and the impact was clear to see in the massive increase in overseas registration for the 2015 election. The EU Referendum then had a multiplier effect, bringing the number of overseas electors to over a quarter of a million in June 2016.
Admittedly, this is still a small proportion of the 3-4m British nationals thought to be living outside the UK, of which roughly 1m are estimated to be resident elsewhere in the EU, and therefore most likely to be mobilised by the referendum vote. But it is a significant increase, given the previous situation.
The British have traditionally tended to associate voting rights with residence: emigration was widely assumed to entail a surrender of voting rights. This is in stark contrast to the French, who we have recently seen queuing in their thousands to vote in the recent presidential elections, in specially created polling stations in the UK and elsewhere in the world (postal voting is not allowed). For the French, the right - and even duty - to vote is seen as integral to French citizenship, and endorsed repeatedly in education civique throughout the national curriculum. In the UK, there is no equivalent, so it is hardly surprising that for British nationals, the very concept of citizenship is somewhat mysterious, as my interviews with British citizens elected as local councillors in France has revealed. Being a ‘good citizen’ is typically linked to the performing of civic duties, engaging in community activities and generally abiding by the law, rather than involving any right or duty to vote. The idea of ‘European citizenship’ was, before Brexit, an even more mystifying label.
This ‘thin’ concept of citizenship no doubt derives from a complex and confusing history, in which the legacy of Empire has complicated and problematized what it means to be British. Many British nationals I interviewed still thought they were British subjects, even though this general categorization changed after 1983, following the British Nationality Act of 1981. This legislation actually defines six different categories of British nationality: it’s no wonder it creates confusion.
But a weak grasp of citizenship is not the only explanation for the relatively low levels of electoral registration amongst Brits abroad (notwithstanding other more personal considerations). Current legislation, dating back to 2002, limits overseas voting rights to those who have been resident outside the UK for 15 years or less: this is known as the ‘fifteen year rule’. So, of the millions of British citizens living abroad, many have already fallen foul of this ruling and are disenfranchised. Some, who left the UK in the 1970s or before, have never had a chance to vote from abroad. But there is no way of knowing how many are concerned, because the UK does not gather any official data on its overseas citizens.
This is a problem that has been presenting a challenge to the Cabinet Office, because the Conservative government made a pledge in 2015, confirmed in the latest manifesto, to abolish the ‘15 year rule’ and grant ‘Votes For Life.’ They have therefore been working towards implementing this policy once it passes into law. They estimate that about 3m British citizens could be enfranchised by the bill. This also poses logistical problems for Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) whose responsibility it will be to check that newly registered electors were either registered or resident in the relevant constituency.
The prospect of the Votes For Life Bill was especially welcomed by the many thousands of British residents in the EU who consider themselves unjustly, even illegally, disenfranchised by the 15 year rule, just as they were for the EU referendum. Having been assured by the previous government that their voting rights would be granted before the next election in 2020, they now see the calling of a snap election in June as the final snub in a long and bitter battle that has been waged by ex-pat activists, both on-line and through the courts. Their frustrations are of course compounded by the prospect of losing their EU citizenship rights, of which they have now become painfully aware.
‘Long term’ overseas residents have however successfully built alliances with campaigning anti-Brexiteers, and together, they have achieved a high degree of on-line mobilization on the question of citizenship and voting rights. Organisations like British in Europe, Remain in France Together (RIFT), Bremain in Spain and Ex-Pat Citizens Rights in the EU (ECREU) are just the most high profile amongst a large number of campaigning groups that have taken to social media to vent their spleen and to seek information and reassurances about their future prospects. Together they have put the spotlight on just how important citizenship has become to them, and this in turn has highlighted the importance of having, and using, a vote.
It will be interesting to see whether overseas registration levels for June 2017 amongst those who do still have a vote are maintained, or possibly even increased. What impact will Brexit have on this election for overseas voters? Results from my surveys show that 70% of respondents say their voting preference will definitely be influenced by their preferred party’s position on Brexit, and many say they are planning to vote tactically against any candidates supporting Brexit. Those who are registered in marginal seats may even be able to tip the election outcome in their constituencies.
It is sadly ironic that it should have taken the EU referendum to bring about a greater awareness of overseas voting rights and their importance to British citizens living abroad. But at least this is one positive outcome of Brexit.
Sue Collard is Senior Lecturer in French Politics & Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.