Around two million Brits won’t be able to vote in the UK’s upcoming referendum on its membership in the European Union. They are expats who live outside of the United Kingdom, and some of their number lost a legal challenge last month to get a say in the June 23 vote.
When a British person lives outside of the UK for more than 15 years, they lose the right to vote in any type of election back home. But since expats’ lives could be turned upside-down in the event of “Brexit” (a British exit from the EU) they argued that they deserved a vote regardless.
“The longer you’ve been away, the more you’ve got to lose,” says Jon Worth, a political communications consultant and blogger from the UK who has been living in Berlin for several years.
The pro-Brexit camp is keen to limit immigration from the rest of the EU should the UK leave the bloc, which could change the status of Brits abroad, depending on how other countries treat Brits living within their borders. (A core principle of the EU is that citizens have the freedom to live and work in any other member state.)
“In this referendum, this issue is of a different scale of importance than the UK general election,” Worth says. “If you have a job or children here [in Germany], or you’re studying here, it has potentially a major implication for your life.”
Home and away
The post-Brexit implications for Brits in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, are unclear. But the fact that long-term expats have no say in this matter thanks to the “15-year rule” puts them in a frustrating limbo.
The issue of voting rights for long-term British expats is what spurred British-born language trainer Nicola Varns to apply for a German passport. Varns has been living and working in Berlin for over 17 years, and was bothered by the fact that that she could neither vote in her home country nor in the one where she pays taxes.
“I knew that if I ever wanted to be able to vote again I would have to get German citizenship—but I didn’t want to give up my British passport,” Varns says. “If I hadn’t found out that you can have both, that would have meant I wouldn’t have been entitled to vote for the rest of my life. Then, the talk of the referendum really compelled me to apply.”
Anyone who has lived in Germany for eight years may apply for German citizenship, provided they pay around €250 ($278) and pass a multiple-choice citizenship test and a language test. The process takes up to 12 months.
Worth, who organizes the “Brits, Brexit (and beer)” gathering in Berlin, says that for many of the British citizens who come to the events, “if push came to shove they would give up the British passport if they needed to, as living in Germany is more important to them.”
The initial idea for the group arose when Worth began to wonder what the British community in Berlin thought about Brexit. He booked a room in a pub and within a week had over 100 signups. He has since organized similar events in Munich, Hamburg, and Cologne.
The practical purpose of the meet-ups is to promote voter registration, explain the ins and outs of postal versus proxy voting, and to explain the process of applying for German citizenship for those so inclined.
Worth described the feeling among Brits in Berlin about Brexit as “confused, resigned, and bewildered.” There’s a lack of clear government guidance for expats, who must jump through hoops with local councils back in the UK if they want to vote remotely.
It’s difficult to get clear data on how many out of the 140,000 Brits living in Germany have voting rights, or have already signed up to vote in the referendum. Since citizens in the UK don’t have to “sign out” when they leave the country—unlike in Germany, where it’s compulsory to register your comings and goings—there is no system to record that data.
“In the 2015 general election, there were only 106,000 of 5 million Brits abroad who were on the electoral register,” said Worth. “That statistic is from the British embassy in Bahrain, and it’s the only stat we’ve got.”
The Local surveyed more than 2,700 British expats across the EU and found that two-thirds of them supported staying in the bloc. But half of people who said they weren’t planning to vote in the referendum cited the complicated registration process as the reason.
Natasha Daniels, a translator and civil servant in the German Justice Ministry in Berlin, recently got the paperwork to start the dual nationality process. “I’ve been in Germany for 16 years, and toying with idea of gaining dual citizenship for a long time, but Brexit really brought it home—it was a real shock that the referendum was going to take place so quickly,” she says.
When Daniels went to her local municipal offices to get the German citizenship papers, the woman behind the counter laughed when she heard she was English—she said there had been a recent rush of Brits asking for application forms.