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Basel’s Brits and the Brexit

By the end of 2017, or already by the end of this year, voters in the United Kingdom will decide whether their country remains in the EU or not. Many Brits living in Basel and the surrounding area would like to know whether they are allowed to cast their vote as well.

By Martin Pütter

To start chatting with a Brit in a pub has always been quite easy, actually: Just make a remark about the weather, and you have broken the ice. This applies both for pubs on the British Isles and for any of the pubs in Basel where you can meet Expats on a regular basis. Once the weather as subject has been exhausted, no problem: just mention the EU – after all, it is not considered old-fashioned anymore to discuss politics during small-talk. And it has been said that as long as the EU has existed (including all its previous forms) there has been disagreement whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the nation’s complete and official name) should be part of it or not.

Thatcher was pro-EU once
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has declared that 2017 at the latest but maybe already at the end of 2016 the voters will have their say on this very issue in a referendum. It would be the third time since 1975 that popular sovereignty would decide in a country that so strongly adheres to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. And even the first nationwide referendum (1975) was about the issue of EU-Membership (or EEC, as it was then called). “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market)?” was the question voters were asked to answer at the time. A little-known fact, perhaps a bit surprising today: even Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Tory Party at the time, was campaigning strongly in favour of staying – later, after the Iron Lady had become Prime Minister, she took a slightly different position towards the EU.

The votes of the expats
The last time a referendum – this one restricted to one region – took place in Great Britain was in September 2014. It was about Scottish independence – and over 55 percent of the Scots who voted were against it and thus decided Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom. Many Scots living in Basel at the time were a bit miffed that they had not been allowed to cast their vote in this referendum. This time, the British Government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, wants to ensure that as many British residents currently living abroad as possible get themselves registered to vote to be able to cast their vote in the EU referendum. That includes the over 43,000 Brits currently living in Switzerland.

This is why the UK Electoral Commission will host an “Overseas Voters Registration Day” on 4 February. The aim of this day “is to boost the numbers of UK residents overseas on the UK’s electoral registers”, says Nadja Leuenberger, spokesperson of the British Embassy in Berne. She explains that British residents living abroad are entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections as overseas voters for up to 15 years, if they were previously registered to vote in the UK before moving overseas. “They register as an overseas voter in the constituency in which they were last registered to vote before leaving the UK”, says Leuenberger. Expats can now register online to vote in just a few minutes at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.

15-year-rule to be scrapped
Even Brits who left their home country more than 15 years ago might possibly get the opportunity to cast their vote in this referendum; “The British Government is committed to scrapping the 15-year time limit on voting from overseas. But this will require a change in the law. The Government intends to bring forward a Bill shortly to permanently scrap the 15 year rule. However, this will need to be debated and approved by Parliament before it can become law.” Leuenberger continues, “As the date of the referendum isn’t known yet, no commitment can be made at this stage that this change will be in place in time for the referendum.”

Brexit consequences wide open
According to the Federal Statistical Office, over 3,300 expats with English as their mother-tongue were living in Baselland by the end of 2015 (with Brits numbering over 1,800), and the figures for Basel-Stadt were 4,900 (incl. almost 2,400 Brits). Should the result of the referendum (whenever it is held) be that the United Kingdom remains a member of the EU, nothing much changes for the Brits in Basel. However, the consequences of a Brexit are wide open. According to Wikipedia almost 1.5 million Brits have been able to take advantage of the freedom of movement to work or study within the EU.

Whether that will still be possible after a Brexit entirely “depends on the kind of relationship Switzerland and the United Kingdom will be entering after the United Kingdom have left the EU. Another important factor would be the alternative agreements or associations the United Kingdom will sign up to once it has left the EU. As long as it remains unclear what the relationship will be between Switzerland and the United Kingdom after the UK’s exit from the EU, it will be impossible to make any statement about possible consequences”, says Pascal Lochiger, head of the office for immigration and residency EU/EFTA at the Department for Migration for the canton of Baselland.

The British Embassy in Berne is currently focusing on getting as many British expats living in Switzerland to register themselves and make sure that they will be able to have their say at the EU Referendum when it takes place, says Leuenberger.
English text edited & proofread by Andi Curran

2 Responses to “Basel’s Brits and the Brexit”

  1. Pamela Nolan says:

    I tried to register but it won’t let me as I have been outside the UK for more than 15 years.

    • Martin Puetter says:

      Scrapping the 15-year rule takes time to become law – let’s just hope it happens before the EU referendum. If Cameron is really serious, then it will be scrapped before the referendum.

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