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BREXIT

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One

In the first instalment of a three-part series investigating how different, often separate, campaign groups of Brits across the EU led to a pan-European campaign, we retraced the early steps of the Votes for Life movement. Which led us to a near-centenarian British war veteran in a quaint Italian coastal town.

How a group of Brits took up a struggle for millions of their co-citizens: Part One
Harry Shindler reviews a document in his office and home in Porto d'Ascoli. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

Harry Shindler, 97, was part of the Allied landings in Anzio near Rome to liberate Italy from fascism in 1944. He eventually settled in the country, which he had first visited as a soldier, in 1982 with his wife and son. His campaign to get Brits abroad the vote has made him a legendary figure whose campaigning work inspired the citizens’ rights group British in Europe.

“So many Brits abroad have gotten involved. They’re all coming together,” Harry Shindler told The Local at his home in Porto d’Ascoli, on the Adriatic coast in Italy.

Jane Golding joined the campaign for the so-called votes for life' bill in 2011. The Berlin-based lawyer and co-chair of British in Europe – the grassroots campaign to secure the rights of Brits living in the EU – credits Shindler’s work on the votes for life bill as the genesis of the pan-European British rights campaign, a first movement of its kind by Brits spread across Europe.

If the Overseas Electoral Bill becomes law it could bring up to five million Brits back into the voting framework in the UK. At the moment, Brits who have lived outside of the UK for 15 years lose the right to vote – they become disenfranchised. In such a scenario, they can no longer participate in parliamentary elections nor in people’s votes, such as the highly-divisive Brexit referendum.

The Overseas Electoral Bill aims to change that. It has already survived two readings in parliament and cross-examination in four sittings in the House of Commons. It faces the third, and crucial, reading before the House of Commons on January 25th. The largest obstacle after that would likely be minor revisions at the House of Lords. 

“This is the last hurdle at the Commons,” Harry Shindler, surrounded by memorabilia from a life few can expect to live, told The Local. Shindler has been lobbying for overseas Brits to be re-enfranchised since he found out he couldn’t vote in UK parliamentary elections in 1997. That didn’t sit lightly with the sharp and engaged war veteran.

The Italian dictionary Harry Shindler MBE bought in southern Italy in 1943 before landing in Anzio, to fight fascism, in 1944. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

“The war 70 years ago was about bringing back the right of people to vote,” says Harry, who is the star of an award-winning film (currently on the festival circuit) – My war is not over.

In the documentary by Italian director Bruno Bigoni, Shindler recounts how he acts upon requests, often from family members, to find British soldiers lost in the WW2 Italian campaign. 

His method involves tracking down what happened to British soldiers in regimental war diaries, where a day's warfare was recorded in an hour-by-hour log. That’s how Shindler found out the truth about Corporal Waters, father of Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. But that’s another story, documented in the book My war is not over by Italian journalist Marco Patucchi.

 
From a young age, this charming Londoner and colossal figure has chosen to engage in struggles. The campaigns that bear his mark are many: from lobbies for regulation of licensing houses, to defeating fascism or changing the British electoral system. In his office, one placard denotes he is a member of ANPI, the Italian partisan organisation. Another reminds visitors that Harry Shindler has been awarded the title Member of the British Empire (MBE); an honorary doctorate from the American University in Rome sits near a photo of Harry with Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters. 
 

Harry Shindler and Roger Waters at a ceremony to commemorate the British soldiers who served in Italy in World War Two and whose resting place in Italy, as well as their fate, remains unknown. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Should the Overseas Electoral Bill be approved in its final sitting in the House of Commons next month, only the House of Lords will stand between potentially millions of Brits abroad being able to register for UK elections via the last constituency where they lived in the UK.

Shindler has been instrumental in getting the bill this far, yet the votes for life bill has its heroes across Europe. The late Brian Cave, who together with former Conservative party staffer Roger Boaden also worked on the campaign to get Brits in France the winter fuel allowance, is another “long-term campaigner”. Cave was involved in the early stages of the votes for live movement, Boaden tells The Local. 

READ ALSO: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Brian Cave authored a blog called Pensioners Debout in which he campaigned for many aspects affecting the lives of elderly British citizens in the EU, Boaden recalls of his friend who died in early 2018. “It's because of Brian that I got involved,” says Boaden. 

Boaden has been campaigning to ensure that pensioners in countries like France, Spain and Cyprus can receive the fuel allowance paid to economically vulnerable pensioners by the UK government. British pensioners who would normally be eligible for the allowance of between £100 and £300 (€110–330 approx) are denied the right in those countries based on studies by the Department for Working Pensions (DWP) that estimate the average winter temperatures in France are higher than in the UK.

Boaden, through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, has sought to prove that feasibility studies of the weather in some of those countries showed that certain areas were clearly colder than the UK. He claims the government manipulated the average temperatures in the UK and the affected countries, as well as the criteria for judging the UK hotter, than, say, France in winter.

 

Roger Boaden. Photo: ECREU. 

When the Brexit referendum happened in 2016, Boaden, Cave and others founded Expat Citizens Rights in the EU (ECREU), a group working on the rights of British citizens in France that counts 10,800 members.

“It was a natural evolution,” says Boaden. “We already had quite a lot of information on how people were suffering.” Across the EU, after the Brexit referendum, groups of Brits from different countries came together to form a movement of lawyers, spokespeople and grassroots campaigners. We'll be telling that chapter in Part Two of this story. 

One of the most unusual yet noteworthy facets of the volunteer movement of Brits lobbying EU28 governments to safeguard and ring-fence the rights of those on the front lines of Brexit, Brits in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, is the non-political aspect.

Harry Shindler is a lifelong member of the Labour party, the same party Jane Golding used to work for; Roger Boaden worked for the Conservatives for 30 years. Other core British in Europe staff worked for the Liberal Democrats.

“What’s important is that it’s not party political,” Harry Shindler tells the Local from his flat in the Italian municipality that has made him an honorary citizen. “I’m working with a lot of Conservatives even though I’m not one,” he added.

Harry Shindler at home in Italy. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Boaden says the votes for life campaign has been unique in its cross-party ability to get Brits across Europe on the same page on an issue.

“At the core is the need to scrap the 15-year rule for overseas voters and rightly ensure that this group can vote for life,” Glyn Davies, the MP who presented the Bill to Parliament in 2017, said in the House of Commons’ first of four sittings on the bill in October and November.

But the Overseas Electoral Bill also has its critics.

The Labour Party has taken a lukewarm, if not opposition, stance to the bill. “The Bill as it stands would demand a hugely complex administrative task of our electoral registration officers,” Christian Matheson, a Labour MP for the City of Chester, argued in the House of Commons. Matheson cited budget cuts as a further reason to avoid giving the electoral commission more work.

“They’re putting administration before the right of people to vote,” Shindler, who will be at the House of Commons for the final reading on January 25th, tells The Local.

“I pointed out to them that by the same argument a city could reach a point where they stop people voting because they don’t have enough money,” says Shindler.

Harry Shindler with his honorary doctorate from the American University of Rome. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

The votes for life campaign morphed into a broader movement in defence of the rights of citizens after June 23rd, 2016: the Brexit referendum.

What started with a handful of British campaigners has led to a powerful pan-European movement. That movement, under the leadership of the British in Europe umbrella group, is pushing to hold the British government, in light of Brexit, to account on the rights of British citizens living in Europe.

“The EU has given Europe 70 years of peace,” says Harry Shindler. He has been here for each one of them. And longer. Citing “dangerous” populists and the spectre of the 1930s looming over many parts of Europe, Shindler says the votes for life campaign is about “principle”.  

Part Two: Battling Brexit: How a group of Brits in Europe took on the fight for citizens' rights

Part Three: How Brexit and the fight for rights united Britons from across Europe

For members

BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

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