Yesterday I got an open letter from the Prime Minister.
But it turns out, she actually forgot about me….
And I’m not the only one. Whether it’s the User Panel proposed in the open letter that only seems to include EU nationals living in the UK, or the Citizens Assembly that doesn’t include a single overseas citizen. British citizens living overseas keep getting left out*.
If it weren’t for the immense efforts of the groups like the British in Europe coalition, we would be left out of the conversation entirely. But they can’t speak for all of us. And nor should it be their responsibility. So why do we keep being left out?
British overseas citizens rights 101
If you don’t know much about this, here’s a quick run down: Most british citizens living overseas have the right to vote for 15 years after they first left the uk. The right to vote is restricted to national and european elections. And once you leave you are tied to voting in the electoral area you were registered in before you left.
If you want to learn more about british citizenship and how that compares to some of our European cousins amongst other things, check out the brilliant podcasts by Dr Michela Benson.
#1 Because nobody really knows who we are (so it’s easier to ignore us)
One of the challenges when we talk about British citizens living overseas is that no one really knows how many of us there are. Estimates vary between 4.5 and 3 million overseas citizens, of which between 2 and 1.2 million live in the EU.
Which means there are roughly a many british people living overseas as there are people living in London.
#2 Because civic engagement gets more complex (so it’s easier to ignore us)
Unless you are living abroad on a flying visit, local issues from the last place you lived – which are often the easiest to engage in – are no longer your issues to debate. So the things you used to have a voice in change from a local level to a national level. And that’s often really difficult to engage with. How do you effectively raise your concerns about pensions or citizens rights to your MP when you are one electronic voice amongst thousands? You can’t drop into their local clinic to tell your story face to face? Does your MP acting alone even have influence on a national issue?
To engage in debates around national level issues you need to really put effort into participating with little prospect of reward
#3 Because our rights to be represented are effectively curtailed by legislation (so it’s easier to ignore us)
There is no direct representation in british democracy for citizens living overseas. The UK is split into 650 electoral areas, each represented by an MP. As a citizen living overseas legislation and parliamentary etiquette (which is on a par with legislation in British parlance) means I am bound to that electoral area until I return to the UK, or my right to vote expires. And when my right to vote expires, it’s utterly unclear who represents me.
An MP who acts on his own is unlikely to be effective or influential on a national issue in parliament.
Let’s break #3 down into a real life example
In 2017 the electoral area I am tied to voted to remain in the referendum. My MP campaigned on a pro-EU stance but he votes with his party (who are in charge or Brexit) so his personal views or that of the area really don’t matter in how he represents us in parliament. I’ve written to him, received his standard party-line responses and noticed that he’s never once asked me a question about my circumstance or tried to get to know me a bit more as a constituent. I’m going to propose that really, he doesn’t want to represent me.
For these reasons British democracy fails me, and a lot of other british citizens who live overseas. Civic engagement shouldn’t be this difficult.
*not everyone ignores british citizens living overseas
- Dr Michaela Benson is running an 18 month ESRC funded research project into the effects of Brexit on British nationals living overseas.
- The British Ambassador in Germany has provided a video update to British citizens living in Germany
- The British Ambassador in the Netherlands is hosting his second round of town-hall events on Brexit with british citizens living in the netherlands.
- The dear late Mayor Eberhard established a great connection with British Amsterdammers when he revealed Amsterdams plan to support their British residents.
- And finally there is a Brexpats Living in Continental Europe and European Expats in the UK all-party parliamentary group. What they do is a mystery but for sure it’s doesn’t include me.
Also published on Medium.