Brexit is affecting the lives of people who had no say in the decision – we need electoral reform now

Historically the UK has prided itself on being ahead of the curve on democratic progress, but it is actually going against the progressive trend

Jane Golding
Thursday 04 April 2019 22:05 BST
British citizens living in Europe are affected by the decisions of a parliament they cannot vote for
British citizens living in Europe are affected by the decisions of a parliament they cannot vote for (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When Nicky was in her early 20s, she left her home town of Broxbourne to look for work.

It was 1990s recession-hit Britain and jobs were hard to come by. She eventually found one, moved around a bit more and eventually settled down when she got married.

Her long-term plan was that she and her husband would one day return to be near her ageing parents who she would then take care of.

So far, so normal.

But in 2016, the UK’s decision to vote to leave the EU overturned those carefully thought out plans.

Nicky lives in the Netherlands, which means she is one of the 1.3 million British citizens who now live in an EU country other than Britain. Losing her EU citizenship means she won’t be able to bring her Dutch husband back to the UK with her as an automatic right.

The British Government’s decision to impose tough minimum income requirements on returning Brits with foreign spouses also narrows their chances of coming back to the UK together. Nicky’s husband has multiple sclerosis and she’s his main carer so will struggle to prove income that is high or stable enough to meet the UK rules. Her parents won’t be able to get health insurance to move to the Netherlands, so they’re all stuck.

To make matters worse Nicky didn’t even get a say in any of this. Due to the 15 year rule, which means that British citizens lose their vote after 15 years outside the country, she’s been disenfranchised. She also can’t vote in any Dutch elections, apart from local ones, as the country doesn’t yet allow dual citizenship for non-citizens. There are moves in Holland to change this, which would mean giving up her British citizenship; a big decision.

Nicky is not alone. Roughly 60% of all Brits who live outside the UK couldn’t vote in the EU referendum. For those in EU countries, this is despite the fact that it will have a direct impact on their own future on the first day of Brexit.

The last three big votes – the referendum in 2016 and two general elections in 2015 and 2017 – have exploded the myth that UK government decisions have no impact on UK citizens abroad.

What happens in the UK directly affects us, and we had no voice when other people voted and the government took decisions over our lives. People are losing businesses, being separated from families like Nicky, and running the risk of losing access to pensions and healthcare, particularly in the event that the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.

For those thinking Nicky’s story is unfortunate but anomalous, it isn’t. UK citizens abroad are not what many people think. The vast majority – 80 per cent – are working age or younger. In recent years almost 90 per cent of those who left the UK did so to look for work. The largest group of emigrants are consistently between 25 and 44.

And we’re not all accountants, lawyers and consultants. Many are self-employed caterers and musicians who are highly mobile, resourceful and need to move around for work. Not all are highly skilled professionals: as many as 40 per cent emigrating are in manual or administrative work in any given year. Thousands have EU or other non-British spouses or partners.

Historically the UK has prided itself on being ahead of the curve on democratic progress, but it is actually going against the progressive trend. 22 of our EU neighbours give their citizens the unconditional right to vote, some even have their own constituencies, with MPs dedicated to legislation that affects overseas citizens. Many countries around the world give their citizens votes for life, including the US.

In our global, interconnected world, what happens in one country has direct repercussions on its citizens wherever they live. But rather than giving everyone affected by decisions at Westminster the vote, our current system is a patchwork of voting rights, with only Commonwealth and Irish citizens living in Britain having a say in UK general elections, along with only a minority of British people living abroad.

If our voting system is not changed, we will see vast numbers of British citizens, who left the UK to work or study, continuing to be completely disenfranchised from national elections and shut out of the democratic process. And many millions of people living in the UK, who have built lives in Britain, will continue to be shut out of the democratic process.

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The UK is undergoing a radical rethink of what it means to be a democracy, and we have an opportunity to campaign for an expanded franchise. We cannot allow citizens – whether they be UK citizens living abroad or non-British citizens living in the UK – to be divided in that campaign.

It’s time to correct the UK’s outdated voting system and ensure that everyone affected by our politics has a say in them – whether they be British people abroad, or non-British residents of the UK.

Jane Golding is the co-chair of the British in Europe.

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