Living abroad is undeniably challenging. As a Spanish citizen working in the UK, I find myself explaining what I miss about Spain nearly on a day-to-day basis. Even though I love my new country, I have developed the ability of answering quickly and without thinking as there are many things that automatically come to mind. The sun. My father’s paella on Sundays. My family and friends. The culture. Valencia during Fallas.
The other day, however, I was asked about something that made me think twice. “What about political participation?”
Of course, as a Spanish citizen, I can still participate in Spanish politics. I can vote in European, national and regional elections.
And what about British politics? I live and work in the UK (and will possibly do so for a very long time), have my own views, and like to feel that my voice is heard. And in many ways, I can do this by getting in touch with my local MP, signing parliamentary petitions… In addition, a couple of days ago Spain and the UK agreed to grant electoral rights in local elections after Brexit to British residents in Spain and Spanish residents in the UK. This is massively relieving as I’m a staunch supporter of local democracy, as it makes me feel closer to my community in the UK.
However, whilst I can participate in politics in Spain and in the UK, I felt that the question I was asked went beyond that.
For me, political participation has an emotional element to it – it’s not only about formally participating in politics. It’s about being taken into account, feeling that your views and opinions are important and can have an impact.
Do I miss participating in political life? Do I feel that living in the UK makes it harder for me to participate in politics? The short answer is no – I still have a chance to participate in democratic decision-making and processes in Spain and in the UK (and, fortunately for me, in the EU). However, the long answer is by far much more complicated. Participating in political life is about reconciling my Spanish background with my new identity. Feeling that I’m being heard in my country of origin and in the UK – or in other words, feeling that I still belong somewhere, that I haven’t fallen into a political (and social, and emotional) limbo.
The outcome of the 2016 referendum was undeniably challenging at a personal level. Whilst I believe in the importance of nation states, I also think that further political integration in the EU, and greater collaboration among different states is not only essential, but also a natural process that is increasingly taking place. And this matches my view on political participation, and on how the world works in general.
Developing alternative ways to satisfy people that may feel trapped in this political participation limbo when living abroad is – I believe – very important. Citizens living in other countries must feel that their countries of origin and host countries have a common interest in taking them into account and understanding from a political perspective what living abroad entails. Cooperation is therefore essential.
Bridging identities: alternative ways of political participation. The case of the Spanish Brexit Task Force Unit.
(I am going to refer to the activities of the Task Force in the past as I no longer work there, but it is still running and successfully helping Spanish citizens in the UK!)
One year ago, I started working at the Spanish Embassy in London as a Brexit Task Force Unit Assistant, which was founded with the aim of informing and supporting Spanish citizens in the UK ahead of Brexit. It was led by a senior diplomat who was in charge of EU affairs, and we worked with a big team spread across the sectorial departments and the consulates in London and Edinburgh. We would get dozens of emails and calls on a daily basis asking about the implications of the -back then- draft Withdrawal Agreement.
However, I believe that the nature of the Task Force evolved, and describing it as an informative tool would be too simplistic.
The Task Force was in constant contact with a wide range of Spanish groups and associations in the UK, including political parties, social and professional groups, Brexit organisations… The Task Force effectively built relationships with these groups, based on reciprocal exchanges of information which helped highlight what they key concerns of Spanish citizens in the UK were. Events were organised by the Task Force: in some cases, representatives met with individual groups; in other cases, bigger events were organised with the DExEU, which brought together a lot of Spanish citizens and organisations.
The Task Force is therefore not only informing Spanish citizens about Brexit. It has also played a major role in helping the Spanish and British governments understand what the views of residents are. It has connected Spanish citizens in the UK to those who, despite being in charge of decision-making in both countries, still need to understand the full impact of new policies on the day-to-day lives of those directly affected. It has led to an exchange of ideas and views between Spanish citizens from different backgrounds and contexts.
The Brexit Task Force Unit at the Spanish Embassy is undeniably an example of best practice. This alternative channel of political participation for citizens living abroad is an extremely admirable example of what embassies and consulates should be doing. And I couldn’t be prouder of it.