One of the downsides of Brexit – as far as the millions of Europeans who live in the wrong place (Britons in the EU-27 or the legions of EU-27 people living in the UK) are concerned – is the lack of information about their future.
It’s almost as if no one cares.
Which, of course, they don’t.
The European Union was always more about trade opportunity than displaced citizens’ rights. And nowhere is this more obvious than in our supposed (and somewhat modest) political privileges. Indeed, it’s hard to even plan for power and influence when you don’t know how many people are going to participate in elections and are in doubt as to how they might vote.
This was the conundrum that faced Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba back in 1995 when his president Felipe Gonzalez, observing a small but significant change in the Constitution made in 1992, decreed that the Europeans living in Spain would be able to vote in European and municipal elections that same year. Rubalcaba, the Minister of Presidential Affairs (the man who much later substituted our residence cards for the handy A4 police letter and passport combo), was appalled. God only knew how they might vote, he thought, allowing the European residents to go ahead in the European elections (after all, you are voting for people who represent Spanish interests in Brussels) but stopping the municipal vote until the next one occurred in 1999.
The constitutional change of 1992 was interesting, as it gave European residents (who now had to register along with their inscription on the town registry – the padrón – their separate plea to vote), not only the active right, but the passive one also (or, in English, that they could now join or even lead a local political list).
Some of us eventually did, and Rubalcaba will have been pleased, four years after his mischief, to note that we voted locally, for local candidates and, in short, behaved ourselves.
In fact, most of us didn’t vote at all, and even today, there is only a modest number of foreign councillors scattered across Spain, in local government or in the opposition, together with just one foreign mayor, Belgian-born Mario Blancke in Alcaucín, Málaga. Many of these councillors are stretched along the coast in (forgive us) small and insignificant towns, are thirty-seven of these are British. Proportionally speaking, the foreign residents are woefully under-represented.
So, what would happen if Brexit caused those British councillors along with all other British residents in Spain to become disenfranchised as is the current scenario from the Spanish electoral commission (‘when and if the UK implements Brexit, their nationals, resident in Spain, will lose their right to vote’)?
Firstly, candidacies from other EU residents, Mario Blancke as one example, would lose way with less ‘foreigners’ voting for their lists. Secondly, town halls, like any other political agency, would take less notice of a population that had no suffrage, and thirdly, the British residents themselves would be returned to that old position of ‘no taxation without representation’ (an ugly place to be, currently suffered by many other foreign nationals living in Spain).
Spain indeed has bilateral agreements with some third countries. Norway from the beginning, later followed by Iceland and a few South American countries along with New Zealand, South Korea and (of course) Trinidad and Tobago (22 of them live in Spain as residents!). Citizens from these countries may vote, but not present themselves as candidates on electoral lists.
An article in El País this weekend changed the game-plan. It said that the British and Spanish authorities were discussing an eleventh-hour agreement to give their guests rights to vote, active and passive rights. ‘The Government hopes that the bilateral agreement would be applied already in the municipal elections of May 26th’. In this agreeable situation, we could maintain our vote in local elections, even if we were to lose it in the European ones – a small loss as things stand. However, in a caveat which would please Rubalcaba, we read ‘...Once it is signed, the deal will be in the same category as any other international treaty and will require ratification by the Spanish and British parliaments. This will probably not happen in time for the May 26 elections next year, diplomatic sources have admitted. In order to work around this problem, the Spanish Foreign Ministry is considering the option of making the agreement go provisionally into force as soon as it is signed by both governments...’. Perhaps, if they had started this conversation two years ago, instead of last week...
Maybe (just maybe) the UK will stay in the EU – either a postponement of their departure or a second referendum with a happier end (hello, Westminster, it would be nice if we were invited to vote in such an important plebiscite this time).
This (apparently, hopefully, maybe, possibly) being the case, we foreign residents will still need to register to vote – by asking for the hoja de inscripción del voto – in our local town halls, before January 15th (or December 31st if you are not from the EU).
Would there still be time to revise our candidate lists for next May, in the event we keep our vote?