British expats are arguably among those most affected by Brexit while having the least say on if the UK should leave the European Union.
The June 2016 referendum was a close run thing.
Leave won with a 51.9% to 48.1% majority – reflecting a difference of 1,269,501 votes.
The result might have looked a lot different if British expats could have voted. Tens of thousands claim that they were disenfranchised because of the time they had to return their ballot papers, while huge swathes of Brits abroad were not eligible to cast a vote because they had spent 15 years or more outside the UK.
Why would the vote looked different?
How the balance for remain would have shifted
Polls in the run up to referendum showed expat feelings ran at a reverse to those on the mainland.
Although the polls may not have been scientific, the anecdotal evidence collected by the Financial Times, global expat network Angloinfo and similar groups reflected at least seven out of 10 expats would vote remain, against 20% for leaving and the rest sitting on the fence as don’t knows.
With around 5 million Brits scattered around the world, that expat vote could have weighed in with 3 million or more remain votes and just a million for leave.
The balance would have shifted from 16.1 million remain votes to possibly more than 19 million, while the leave vote would have increased to around 18.4 million.
That switches the result to a 600,000 majority to remain. A slender win, but still a win under Britain’s first past the post referendum rules.
And that’s where things would look a lot different – and the what ifs come into play.
Cameron’s do or die bid
Prime Minister David Cameron may have remained in Number 10 with his majority government instead of resigning, denying Theresa May her chance to drink from the poison chalice of office.#
Brexit uncertainty that has had a stranglehold on the British economy and psyche for the intervening years would have dissipated, the Tories would stay fractured but not at open war and the future could be rosy.
So what went wrong?
Cameron made a fatal mistake after renegotiating Britain’s terms for remaining in the European Union.
He called the referendum to gain the people’s mandate to remain in order to quell the leavers within his party.
But the plan was flawed. Cameron miscalculated the will of the people and instead of coming away from the referendum with a stronger hand, his position was weakened.
And instead of rallying support from the millions of expats, their chance to impact the debate was scuppered.
Late ballot paper farce
Thousands of expats lost their chance to have a say because their postal ballot papers failed to arrive on time, while EU citizens in the UK were turned away from polling stations and told they must vote in their home states.
Expats from as far afield as Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the USA flooded social media with complaints about their ballot paper delay.
Many failed to arrive before June 23, while others received them too late to post back to meet the poll deadline.
The problem was councils running the polling stations gave the expat ballot papers to a firm that chose to send the to the Netherlands for distribution, adding vital days to their transit times.
Even worse in expat eyes was the 15 year rule.
The 15 year rule for expats explained
This measure states that British expats who have stayed out of the country for 15 years or more were denied a vote in the referendum – even though the Tories had made a manifesto promise to drop the rule.
British expats can vote in General Elections, referendums and European Parliament elections providing they were registered to vote in the UK before they left.
Those under 18 years old when departing the UK can vote if their parent or guardian was registered to do so before they left the country.
Expats cannot vote in local elections or devolved elections in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
“For voting in local election in EU countries, the UK is seeking bilateral arrangements with individual EU countries. These would preserve reciprocal voting rights for both UK nationals living in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, says the UK government.
“After Brexit, UK nationals will no longer be eligible to vote in European Parliament elections.”
Right to vote lost by 2m expats
The media gorged on the spectacle of World War 2 veteran Harry Shindler, 94, trekking from his home in Italy to the Supreme Court in London in a forlorn bid to overturn the 15 year rule.
He claimed the 15 year rule infringed his human rights – specifically his freedom of movement – and his right to vote.
The court’s decision to reject Shindler’s pleas and retain the 15 year rule wiped 2 million expats off the voters’ roll at a stroke and put paid to any effort from offshore for a swing in favour of remain.
Even if all the British expats living in the European Union had returned their postal ballots on time and plumped for remain, their 760,000 or so votes would not have made a difference to the referendum outcome.
“Spain continues to be the most desirable location for the 760,000 Brits living in the EU. However, the EU is not the most popular destination for British expats, with more than half preferring to live in English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, US and Canada,” said Jay Lindop, Deputy Director of Migration Statistics at the UK Office for National Statistics.
Proroguing and the Overseas Electors Bill
The upset over the 15 year rule spawned the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19, a private member’s bill introduced by MP Glyn Davis.
The bill fulfils the Conservative election pledge to extend the right to vote to all expats by scrapping the 15 year rule.
Unfortunately, the bill started a third reading and the report stage before MPs in March 2019, but was adjourned.
Now Parliament is prorogued, the bill is cancelled but can be reintroduced, but loses the current status and is push backed to a first reading.
For expats, the right to vote is now no closer than at any time in the past decade as the 15 year rule still applies.
In the event of a second referendum, hotly tipped as a likely move should Labour win the next General Election, the missing 2 million expats frozen out of the 2016 referendum are still out in the cold.