Hedwig Hegtermans has lived in Britain for two decades, but she didn’t have a vote when the country decided in 2016 to leave the European Union. She’s determined to have her say on Brexit now.
An election for the European Parliament being held this month in all 28 EU member states — including the not-yet-departed U.K. — is giving Hegtermans and other Europeans in Britain the chance to pass judgment on the Brexit decision that left their lives in limbo.
“It is a way for people to voice their frustration,” said Hegtermans, a Dutch citizen and member of The 3 Million, a lobby group for EU citizens in Britain.
Like other non-U.K. EU nationals, she was not eligible to vote in Britain’s EU membership referendum three years ago — and like them she saw her automatic right to live and work in Britain whipped away by the Brexit decision. (The British government says all 3 million EU citizens in Britain can stay, but they have to apply for “settled status” through a somewhat glitch-prone new registration process).
“We did not have a vote in the referendum, we could not voice anything while we were the people who will be affected the most,” Hegtermans said.
She said the May 23 election to fill the U.K.’s 73 seats in the 751-seat EU legislature “is one way for us to let our voices (be) heard.”
The result of next week’s election won’t directly affect Brexit. But it will be interpreted as a test of public sentiment — almost a mini-referendum — and could sway politicians to take a harder or softer course as Britain heads for the exit door.
That makes this the most high-profile European election in Britain in years — but it shouldn’t be happening. The U.K. was due to have left the EU by now.
Instead, British politicians are deadlocked over departure terms and Brexit has been postponed from March 29 until Oct. 31 while they try to sort out the mess. So Britain is taking part, and the contest here is dominated by candidates promising either to speed up Brexit or throw it into reverse gear.
Pro-European parties are eager to attract votes from EU citizens, who can vote in European polls though not in U.K. national elections.
That’s why a former finance minister of Poland could be found recently standing outside a suburban London subway station, thrusting anti-Brexit leaflets at tired commuters. Jan Vincent-Rostowski, a London-born economist who served in a center-right Polish government between 2007 and 2013, is a candidate for the newly former pro-EU party Change UK.
“I thought that was something I could bring to the campaign, being both a British citizen — a Londoner born and bred — but also a Polish citizen who has done his bit in politics elsewhere,” Vincent-Rostowski said.
“Brexit is collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. And if something bad is collapsing I think it’s a good idea to give it a push. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Chipper and polite — “Can I give you a leaflet madam?” — he got a reasonably warm reception in suburban Ealing, a diverse London district that voted 60% for remaining in the European Union. Several Poles recognized him, stopping to chat or film him on their phones.
But this is a heated and bad-tempered election. Both of Britain’s main parties — the governing Conservative and opposition Labour — are bracing for a hammering as voters frustrated by the Brexit impasse turn to parties promising either a definitive break with the EU or a chance to remain in the bloc.
Thousands of Brexiteers across the country are flocking to rallies for the new Brexit Party led by former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who accuses the government of betraying Brexit and wants Britain to walk away from the bloc even if there is no divorce deal to smooth the way.
Among pro-Europeans, Change UK is competing for votes with the centrist Liberal Democrats and environmentalist Greens. All support holding a new referendum that would include the option of remaining in the EU.
Politics professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London said EU citizens’ votes could deliver a boost to pro-EU parties, if “they can be bothered to come out and vote in what is such a depressing time for them. ”
EU elections in Britain generally have a low turnout. At the last EU election in 2014, it was 35%, and Bale said a turnout of 40% this time would be “stunning.”
EU citizens also must navigate a U.K. voter-registration process that requires them to fill out a form declaring that they do not plan to also vote in their home country.
Hegtermans said there has been “quite a bit of confusion” about the forms, and the deadline for registration passed on May 7. It’s likely some Europeans will show up at polling stations only to be turned away.
Others may stay away out of a common U.K. malaise: Brexhaustion.
Europeans in London expressed a mix of enthusiasm and resignation at the prospect of an election that — three years after the vote to leave the EU — is dominated by Brexit.
“As a Polish citizen, I would love Britain to stay in the European Union,” said 32-year-old Kate Staron. “So definitely I will vote and try to make some difference. .. I encourage everyone else to go and vote as every vote is important.”
Marcel Wojtyniak, a 25-year-old data analyst also from Poland, wasn’t so sure.
“I think there’s a lot of exhaustion on the subject,” he said.
“I suppose I just moved on. I accepted the fact. I don’t really think the European elections are going to make that much difference.”