The Silencing of the Disenfranchised European Progressive

In Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political by Louisa Leontiades

In my youth was one of those who ‘didn’t care’ about politics. Sure, I cared deeply about those affected by unjust policies, I boycotted, I signed, I even marched. But I didn’t understand such a complicated political system and I left the U.K. at the age of sixteen before I was eligible to vote. Besides, if it didn’t involve my newly discovered bodily functions, in all likelihood I wasn’t interested. My school curriculum did not include politics and when I came of age in 1993 I was living abroad. I believed–falsely– that I was only eligible to vote locally in whichever country I was living in at time. Cyprus, France, Eire, Germany, Italy, Sweden. There was no reason for me to question this because it made sense to me that I should not be able to vote in my home country’s elections in order to affect policies which wouldn’t affect me. That wouldn’t be fair, now would it?

Europe, I was told, was the future. By the time I was 31, and after fifteen years of working as a financial analyst in Europe, unregistered as an overseas voter in the U.K., I lost the right to exercise my vote there entirely1. It took a good few years for me even to learn that I’d ever had the opportunity. The information wasn’t accessible for many of us who’d moved abroad.

That’s just how the British system works and I’m gonna hazard a guess and say that I’m not unique. The electoral commission estimates that out of 5.5 million U.K. nationals living overseas, fewer than 20,000 people are registered to vote. There could be many potential reasons not least that to become a overseas voter is a bureaucratic nightmare, especially for those like me who left before voting age. When I eventually found the energy to jump through all the hoops, when I felt my vote mattered, I was turned away. The electoral commission had only been formed in 2001 and when I discovered the website several years later, my rights had already expired. You might say that it’s karmic but many like me who were privileged enough to be ‘first wave’ Europeans have unwittingly become disenfranchised through a series of interconnected phenomena.

In 1957, the Treaty of Rome paved the way for my academic Greek-American father to settle and marry in the U.K. But as the daughter of an immigrant my sense of national identity was less than it might otherwise have been, and this was reinforced by xenophobic schoolyard bullying. I studied international business partly as a consequence and was educated about Europe rather than Britain, I benefited from the Treaty of Maastricht and the free movement of people and left the shores of my native country as a school girl in 1992, to study in Cyprus living at my newly divorced Greek father’s home. Back then there was no online access to the news back home unless you were in the armed forces and I lived in the political void. It would take another decade before the internet was more easily accessible to me because it cost money I could hardly afford and a LOT of patience to wait for the dial up connection.

When technology came, whilst beneficial in many ways, it had an adverse impact on my political acumen. When my father arrived in the UK, and as a ‘good’ immigrant, he read The Times every day. Such papers have traditionally been regarded as ‘an integral and important part of the political structure of Great Britain’2. When The Times came online in 1999, few understood that reading online created an entirely new experience and was not simply an extension of offline print.

Content delivery, formatting, layout, scrolling versus turning, the physical nature of paper versus the virtualness of a screen, hyperlinks and the sheer overload of information means that online we are more likely to skim, than to read in depth3. Even now, if I want to read something properly, I print it out. But there was no way I could–or can–afford to pay for a subscription to The Times and then spend the money on my own paper and ink to print it out. I had no time to make the journey to the one store which stocked english newspapers all the way over the other side of town. Bloggers on the other hand understood content delivery, they also understood how to illuminate multicultural and diverse perspective, something which as a multicultural reader spoke me more since many traditional outlets actively discouraged the personal op-ed until later. I read blogs, hundreds and thousands of them. I learned about intersectionalism, I learned about feminism, I learned about neurodivergent psychology. I learned about cultural attitudes, and norms. I did not learn about politics unless it coincided with the personal.

I am responsible for my choices and I do not blame anyone else, I simply observe the result. Millions of rights and votes lost forever, from those who believe in a united Europe, votes from individuals who are less likely to be predisposed to xenophobia and racism because they have lived most of their lives in different cultures, learning foreign languages. These people became a key readership demographic of the blogosphere before online broadsheets were even available.

So I could not have voted ‘stay’ in the referendum last year even though I wanted to, even though being a european has afforded me benefits that I cherish despite, or maybe even because of, the loss of national identity. Travel opens your mind. I have through years, learned to understand and consequently have compassion for people from all walks of life, but in my journey to become a European citizen I unwittingly lost the power to vote anywhere it makes a real impact.

What power does my vote hold? Europe is necessarily fragmented because of the highly disparate languages and cultures contained within it. Even whilst I voted in local elections, I rarely understood the intrincacies or consequences of my vote because it takes time and energy to learn a language–where the primary purpose must be to get a job–let alone understand a new political system in a foreign language. Where there are a high percentage of immigrants, so the population is surely more predisposed to contain a higher number of people who cannot cast a fully informed local vote, have no national vote and who are less likely to vote in the elections of the country they left.

My elderly English uncle is a little disgusted by my lack of what he considers to be general political knowledge. But then he doesn’t know how to build a website, or use social media. When he speaks of ‘blogging’, you can hear the apostrophes. It took many years for him to learn to change the channel amid the hundreds which flooded his television, and rarely uses email. When he does it is written with the painstaking care that was formerly attributed to a handwritten letter. He has never studied abroad, but he better understands British politics than I do and is unsurprisingly a nationalist. The spread of votes in the U.K. makes it abundantly clear that the older demographic, those like my uncle, voted to leave. Long-term immigrants and emigrants are to my mind, more likely to have progressive attitudes just because many of them have lived in different countries, and during huge changes to our economy. We understand that in order to cope with it all, a new and united order is necessary and vital. Our silence in Brexit does not necessarily mean we are complicit in this decision. It does not mean we are apathetic. It simply means we lost the right to vote in Britain by trying to become European.

1. http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/faq/voting-and-registration/can-i-still-vote-if-i-move-overseas

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Times

3. http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader