Brits abroad urged to take part in Brexit referendum

British expats have just weeks left to register to vote in the upcoming referendum on the nation’s membership within the EU

Peter Harrison
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British expats are being urged to register to vote in time for a referendum that will decide the future of Britain’s membership in the European Union.

The poll, which takes place on June 23, will ask voters whether they wish to stay or remain in the 28-member bloc. The two camps, known as the “stay” campaign which advocates for Britain remaining the EU, and the “leave” campaign, which wants Britain out, say that British expats should register to cast their votes soon. The deadline to register to vote is May 16.


Those who support a British exit - known as a “Brexit” - from the EU argue the country’s membership is costly and restrictive when it comes to international trade. They also oppose the EU’s involvement in forming laws that impact Britain.

Matthew Elliott, the head of official “Vote Leave” campaign, said leaving the EU was in the “overwhelming interest of all expats” both in Europe and further afield.

Meanwhile, James McGrory, the chief campaign spokesman at Britain Stronger in Europe, a pro-Leave group argues that those living and working abroad stand to benefit more if the UK remains in the EU.

“On June 23, Britain will be making the choice of a generation. Living and working abroad is made easier by our membership of the EU, which means this decision will be felt not just by those living in the UK but by the many British expats abroad,” McGrory told Al Arabiya English.

Sources tend to disagree over the total number of British expats living abroad. A Home Office report puts the total at around 4.7 million, UK paper The Guardian reported in 2012. The World Bank in 2011 put the figure between 4.5 million to 5.5 million - around 7 to 8 percent of the UK’s population.

The upcoming poll continues to be a fiercely fought competition that has seen politicians, businesspeople and even US President Barack Obama express their views on why the UK should leave or maintain its membership.

During his recent visit to the UK, Obama told a press conference that if Britain left the EU it would be pushed to the “back of the queue” in any future business negotiations with the US.

In an apparent sign of British rejection of Obama’s intervention, polls released this week show the “Leave” camp inching ahead by a one-point lead.

The in/out debate

“Taking back control would boost the UK’s economy at home while increasing its international engagement abroad,” argued Elliott, the “Vote Leave” chief.

“It would lead to a fairer immigration policy ending rules that often discriminate against expats abroad and their family members.”

Those opposed to a Brexit argue that expats will suffer if Britain leaves the EU. Elliott disagrees.

“Despite the ‘In’ campaign scaremongering to the contrary… the rights of expats in the EU would be protected,” said Elliott.

“It is overwhelmingly in the interests of both the UK and the EU to reach mutually satisfactory arrangements about EU citizens living in the UK, and British citizens living in the EU, after we vote Leave. By voting Leave we can take back control of trade deals boosting business across the globe, and in emerging markets in particular.”

McGrory, the spokesman for the Leave campaign, said that expats would benefit from Britain staying in the bloc. “Wherever you are in the world, membership of the EU strengthens the UK economy. Jobs through increased trade and investment, and lower prices means that British people everywhere are connected to a strong UK.”

“As a full EU member, British people can travel, live and work freely across Europe, and they’re entitled to free healthcare if something goes wrong. If we left, no-one can guarantee that would continue.

The Leave campaigns’ plan for Britain - to pull the UK economy out of the single market altogether - could see every British expat’s automatic right to live abroad thrown into doubt.”

How it started

The EU’s roots began in the decade following the Second World War. In 1958, the European Economic Community (EEC) was created with the purpose of eventual economic union.

Britain voted to join the EEC in 1975. In 1993 it underwent a name change to the European Union. Since its formation as the EEC, the union has grown from six nations to 28 – with more states indicating their interest in joining in recent years – including Turkey.

The EU deals with a broad spectrum of issues, from employment law, to transport and agriculture. spanning five decades Britain’s membership of this union has continued to be the center of one of the most long-standing debates.

The British government’s website states that it supports staying in the EU. However, several prominent government ministers have come out in support of Brexit.

In a statement outlined on government’s website, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The deal gives the UK the best of both worlds. The UK is stronger, safer and better off in a reformed EU. We have access to the Single Market and play a leading role in determining the rules that govern it.”

Legal challenge

Despite the importance of the June 23 poll, not every British expat can vote. A British court ruled this week that Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years cannot vote.

The court ruling was in response to Harry Shindler, a 94-year-old Second World War veteran who lives in Italy, and Belgian resident Jacquelyn MacLennan.

They had tried to challenge the rule that imposes the 15-year time limit in a test case at the British high courts.

Despite arguing they were being unlawfully denied the right to vote, two judges said in Thursday’s ruling that they accepted the government’s argument that there were: “... significant practical difficulties about adopting especially for this referendum a new electoral register which includes non-resident British citizens whose last residence the United Kingdom was more than 15 years ago.”

British nationals living outside the UK should register on the government website by no later than May 16. They will then be given the choice to either opt for a postal vote which will be sent to them or to nominate someone to vote on their behalf. If you have applied for a postal vote, but return to Britain and are in your constituency at the time of the referendum, you will not be allowed to vote with a ballot paper in a polling station - you must still use the postal vote paper and return this to the polling station.

Guide to the EU referendum to be held in the UK (By Craig Willers)
Guide to the EU referendum to be held in the UK (By Craig Willers)

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