The five million Brits who live overseas should have their own elected representatives, writes Alastair Stewart.
Given Brexit has been delayed, possibly until October, there might be just enough time to squeeze in EU elections, a second referendum, a general election, a summer holiday and, well, whatever else you might like on the wish list.
With all that in mind, there’s also time to reflect on the remarkable inefficiency of how the UK represents the interests of its five million-strong people scattered across the world.
I should know. Until a month ago, I was living in Spain. Over five years, I met every variety of British migrant over there. I can tell you first hand that ‘expat’ is as loaded a term as any I’ve heard and the connotations are unfair. I don’t even need to describe the image it conjures up, you already know it, but I will say this – most Brits in Europe are of working age. The Office for National Statistics reports that two-thirds of the 784,900 British citizens in the EU are long-term residents between 15 and 64 years old.
Europe isn’t so much a playground as an employer for most of the million-strong Britons there. And, unless they renounce their citizenship, political decisions taken by the UK Government can still have real and lasting consequences on the lives of this global British diaspora.
Brexit is a case in point. There’s very little this global community can do about it beyond contacting their ‘local’ MSP or MP – and that’s only if they’ve been away for less than 15 years.
British citizens overseas register to vote using their last postcode in the UK. I’ve arrived home in Edinburgh after five years and found two bookshops I love have closed and a plethora of beloved pubs refurbished or under new management.
If old haunts have changed so dramatically, what is fair about my vote weighing the same as someone who lives and breathes in the constituency? An MP’s time is ultimately finite, and even more so if they hold a government position.
There are few constituency issues that will truly “make waves” unless they tap into a widespread or national problem. Why is constituency time being wasted by legitimate constituents abroad, demanding action from individual MPs, when they could be represented by a handful of dedicated Members of Parliament for overseas citizens? British citizens in Europe who’ve rallied against Brexit have had the biggest impact by acting collectively to lobby for their rights and their interests.
The current electoral system is not only unproductive, but also denies UK residents the complete focus of their taxpayer-funded representation for local, constituency issues.
Creating MPs for Brits overseas would not be unprecedented. In France, there are 11 seats that represent the 2.5 million Français établis hors de France (citizens of France overseas). Their delegates not only play an active and decisive part in French politics but represent regional constituencies such as Northern and Southern Europe. To go one further, the French even have an Assemblée des Français de l’étranger, the Assembly of French Citizens Abroad, that represents all French citizens living outside France and advises the government on issues affecting them.
Macedonia also elects three out of 123 seats to represent overseas citizens from three constituencies – the Americas, Europe-Africa and Asia-Oceania. There are currently 23,782 registered voters outside of the country, up from about 7,200 in 2011, when the three seats were established to stand in the Macedonian Assembly. The Italian Parliament is another of the few legislatures in the world to return seats for citizens residing abroad. The Overseas Constituency (Circoscrizione Estero) elects 12 representatives to the Chamber of Deputies and six to the Senate of the Republic from four electoral zones (including Europe).
Even in the United States, there are calls to introduce direct representation in Congress for nationals living abroad. The American Citizens Abroad organisation campaigns for the introduction of representatives and senators for the nine million US citizens worldwide because of “the special issues they face, the growing complexities of the global markets and the role that Americans overseas play in the competitiveness of the United States”.
It’s long overdue that the United Kingdom introduce Members of Parliament to represent a diaspora which has travelled far and wide but is still British. The introduction of MPs for regional or global constituencies would, if nothing else, make their ballot more relevant and be more fair for residents of the UK.
What is clear is something must be done to redress the imbalance and a glaring electoral hole. British citizens, wherever they are, have a right to be heard, and while voting is an individual right, concerns are often shared and that should be reflected.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes regular features on politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart