It was all supposed to be finished by now. Cut and dry, nearly 3 years after the Brexit vote, most matters were expected to have already been resolved. Nevertheless, here we are: no closer towards achieving a deal than we were after Article 50 was invoked, and risking the probability that, regardless of the eventual outcome, very few people will end up satisfied by it.
While there is, has been, and, sadly, will continue to be finger pointing for some time to come regarding who did what, who didn’t do what, and who should’ve done what, there is one particular group that, before the first ballot was even cast, was already feeling disappointed and ignored – expats.
As of 2016, records indicate that there were approximately 5.3 million (8%) foreign nationals living in the UK, with just over half of those – 2.9 million (5%) – being from Europe; conversely, the UK boasts an expat population of around 5 million, with roughly 1.2 million living in EU countries.
Regardless of what impact a significant portion of these expats could’ve or would’ve had on Brexit (or any general election, for that matter) – we’re not here to discuss “what ifs” – the fact remains that they weren’t allowed to have it. Due to a lack of will from either major party, the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985, which set the limitations on voting, was not repealed, meaning that only British citizens who had once lived in the UK but have lived abroad for 15 years or less were eligible to vote.
Sadly, much like the Brexit vote itself, this limitation of expat representation is a contentious issue, but, still, nobody really knows how to fix it. For example, what would make 10 years’ time not long enough and 20 years’ time too long; moreover, if you don’t pay taxes and live there, should you be entitled to vote? Even when looking at the UK’s neighbours, the solutions are different: France and the United States, for example, both have full citizen suffrage regardless of location; however, Ireland (currently) and Canada (up until January 2019) only allow(ed) citizens living in the country to vote in national/federal elections.
According to this limitation, approximately 700,000 British expats living in EU countries were considered not eligible to vote. A few of those involved, taking their case to British and EU courts, eventually have had their case dismissed, being told that they don’t have a case until Article 50 has been finalised – much like a firefighter telling you they’ll save your house once it stops burning.
Expats in both the EU and UK are facing tremendous hurdles. For Brits who will remain within EU countries and are seeking to further integrate, Fiona Godfrey, co-chair of British in Europe, a coalition of British nationals in the EU, describes them as being used like pawns in a game, stating: “We are hearing that U.K. citizens who have changed nationality are being told informally that they will be regarded as British for promotion purposes, i.e. they will not be considered for further career advancement.” Conversely, the lack of any sort of concrete agreement on a finalised settlement, status, or freedom of movement is creating uncertainty for the EU expat community living in the UK, already causing some to leave or, at least, consider leaving.
If anything is worse than knowing bad news, it’s uncertainty. With multiple votes on the same plan as well as a resounding inability to agree to any other plan, Westminster, in the time since the referendum, hasn’t been helping matters. Furthermore, though a “No Deal” Brexit seems like the least objectionable act to many, considering the inability to find another workable plan, it isn’t perfect: WTO rules may sound all-encompassing, but even this doesn’t take into account EU common external tariffs, limitations and regulations on trade in the service sector, or freedom of movement issues, thus affecting all expats. While Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live.”, perhaps now, in order to find the best workable solution, we should be asking how much harsh medicine the patient is willing to take.