Modernising the relationship between Britain and its citizens living abroad is a policy that Liberal Democrats Overseas and Liberal Democrats in Europe have jointly launched at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference in Bournemouth, UK, earlier this month.
Enthusiastic energy was felt at this conference, with discussion around the importance of Brits living overseas. Speakers voicing their ideas on the panel were Liberal Democrat Party President Sal Brinton and members of the European Parliament, along with the Heads of Liberal Democrats Overseas and Liberal Democrats in Europe.
The Liberal Democrats took a radical stance towards Brexit. They would revoke Article 50 and withdraw the request to leave the European Union (EU) – if they had their way in the British government.
“We have been evolving a new way to connect with Brits overseas since 2016. However it was not driven initially by the disastrous 2016 EU referendum in the UK but by the wish to abolish the 15 year rule that prohibits Brits overseas who have been away longer from voting in UK elections.
“We have created a new party structure called Lib Dems Abroad, and spent 12 months reaching out to Brits abroad through surveys to identify their challenges and needs,” said Chariman of Liberal Democrats, George Cunningham.
Five million Brits living abroad come from all walks of life – working families with children, students, professionals, freelancers, and pensioners. Many continue to pay UK taxes and retain close connections with the UK through their relatives and friends living in the country.
Large swathes were disenfranchised in the 2016 EU referendum, yet 1.2 million Brits living outside the UK in the EU have the most to lose, especially if there is a no-deal Brexit.
“It is important that all British citizens are treated fairly and equally. This has not been the case until now for those living abroad. We aim to put that right.
“With regards to voting rights, the current ’15 year rule’ resulted in an estimated 3 million Brits being unable to vote in the 2016 EU referendum if they had wished to do so. Those living outside the UK in the European Union are the most impacted by Brexit without most having had the opportunity to have a say on the matter.
“In some countries, Brits state pensions are frozen, and do not rise with inflation (i.e, you receive exactly the same figure aged 65 as 30 years later at age 95). It is estimated that a half of million Brits outside the country are impacted by this. Brexit would mean that this would also be an issue for Brits left in the rest of the EU, unless and until the UK makes reciprocal arrangements to do differently, country by country,” Cunningham added.
In its 2017 General Election Manifesto, Liberal Democrats committed themselves to enable all UK citizens living abroad to vote for MPs in separate constituencies. As a long-term goal, MPs in parliament will specifically represent the Brits living overseas i.e. one or more MP representing all expatriates of a geographical region. A dedicated MP for overseas voters could focus on the issues raised in a Lib Dem policy paper, and help support Brits who do face unique challenges outside the UK.
“At the moment, British citizens living overseas can vote by proxy (where a trusted contact in the UK makes the vote for them), by post, or by turning up in person to a UK voting station. Because of the unreliability of post, we strongly recommend the use of the proxy vote and most likely at consulates in the country they reside or even electronically,” said Cunningham.
The Liberal Democrats propose the following nine points:
1. Reaffirming the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto pledge for Votes for Life for elections and referendums for all Brits who have been registered previously to vote in a UK constituency, but currently live overseas;
2. The extension of that pledge to all British citizens of voting age limit;
3. The introduction of overseas constituencies representing British citizens worldwide;
4. Improved accessibility of voting overseas, using alternatives to unreliable international post;
5. Unfreezing pensions in countries where annual increments do not apply to British retirees, such as in Australia and Canada;
6. Improved access to healthcare support, especially in emergency cases;
7. British students to be given ‘home’ status for paying UK university fees;
8. The relationship with British Overseas Territories to be based on liberal values, transparency and fair access to democratic institutions.
9. Children of British citizens born abroad should become British citizens automatically.
Chair of Liberal Democrats, Rob Harrison stated that “Brexit will severely diminish the rights and freedoms of our citizens living in the EU.”
Besides having clarity on voting rights, improved healthcare support, especially in emergency cases is in fact a human right. A helpline facility where vulnerable Brits living overseas will soon be available, including options for their situations linked between both the UK and their respective residing countries.
Image: The Irish Times