Ukrainians in Spain

Ukrainians in Spain

The crisis is Ukraine has been at the forefront of our minds since the war began over a month ago, writes Bremain Chair Sue Wilson MBE for The Olive Press. In particular, the plight of Ukrainian refugees has seen the governments and the peoples of Europe open their hearts, minds and wallets to help those in desperate need.

In an effort to understand what more could be done to help, and what motivated people to provide support, funding or even accommodation, I spoke to some of those affected.

I met Anastasia Ka and her 11 year old daughter in my home town of Alcossebre.  She had flown into Spain from Poland, having travelled from her home in Lviv. Her parents decided to stay in Ukraine. “They didn’t feel safe, but they did feel comfortable”, Anastasia told me. From the start of the war, life was different. The experience of having to move to safety underground every time a government alert was received – sometimes several times a day, or night – became too much for Anastasia. It was impossible to sleep, to wash her hair, to work or to study. However, Anastasia did manage to volunteer for the Red Cross at the railway station, helping people and their pets to leave. Worried for her daughter, despite it being “difficult to leave the motherland”, she travelled to Poland to start her journey.

As Lviv is a tourist town, and thanks to Anastasia’s intervention, those safety alerts are now in five languages, to keep all in Lviv safe, regardless of nationality. On life in Spain, Anastasia told me, “Everyone here asks me how I am. It is difficult to say “bien” or “good” when every day I hear bad news, bombs are going off and people are dying”. When I asked her what she thought would happen back home she said, “War has taught me not to think too much, not to make plans and to live every day like it’s your last”. Anastasia is making the most of the sun and being by the sea. But her dream is for peace to return and to be able to go home as soon as possible.

 

Anastasia and her daughter have settled in Alcossebre

Anastasia and her daughter have settled in Alcossebre

Candace and David Edwards have donated beds, a travel cot, bedlinen, a high chair and a bag of towels to a group helping Ukrainian refugees in Nerja, as well as making a generous donation to charity. The Edwards have known 61 year old Tania, a Ukrainian/Russian woman, for the last 17 years, describing her as the hardest working person they know. Tania has a married son with two young children back in Ukraine. When war broke out, Tania’s granddaughter was in Germany with her mother, for special medical treatment. Tania’s son managed to get her grandson to the Polish border and he has been reunited with his mother and sister in Germany. However, Tania’s son had to return home to Zaporizhzhia, north-west of Mariupol, partly to fight, but also to support Tania’s disabled sister who is unable to leave. Tania is very concerned for her sister and her son, as soldiers were seen entering the town a few days ago. Candace told me, “I’ve been giving stuff away to Tania over the years to send on to her family in Ukraine. The whole situation is so desperately sad”. 

On February 24, 39 year old Oksana Panchuk and her 11 year old son were woken by an explosion that shook the windows of their Kyiv apartment. A worried phone call from her parents told her “something incomprehensible” was happening and she should move to their home in Zhytomyr for safety. She started packing immediately. Many other Kyiv residents had the same idea, resulting in huge traffic jams and Oksana and her son having to abandon the car and walk 10 kilometres. After a week in Zhytomyr, it was clear that the war was spreading and civilians were being targeted. It was time to move on as “every night my son trembled with fear”.

With relatives in Palma de Mallorca offering help, Oksana and her son got on a bus for Poland, where they were fed and able to rest. They teamed up with a family travelling to Barcelona, then took a ferry to Mallorca where they were met by relatives, who they stayed with initially. Until they found British Palma resident, Tracey O’Rourke, who offered them a room.

Tracey (L) with Oksana and her son

Tracey (L) with Oksana and her son

While Oksana is grateful to feel safe, she is naturally worried about her family back home, who she calls every day. She said, “Every night I wake up and worry about the lives of my parents who stayed in Zhytomyr, my boyfriend who is in Kyiv.” She follows the daily news and “waits for this bloody tragedy to end”. Oksana wants to return home as soon as possible, to help rebuild her country. She added, “we don’t want another country, another life – we want our homeland back”.

Tracey watched and listened to the Ukraine invasion, feeling powerless but determined to act. She felt a connection to the Ukrainian people, with her brother being a historian, a regular visitor to Ukraine and Russia, and her sister-in-law being from Vitebsk. She told me, “I am not simply a horrified observer – I know people in both countries”. When she read that Spain was welcoming fleeing families without visa applications, she made enquiries and started filling out forms. A contact in the Ukrainian church in Palma put her in touch with Oksana’s relatives, whose house was now full of other family members fleeing the war. Tracey said, “this was something practical and meaningful that I was in a position to do”, adding “God forbid, if I was ever in this situation myself, I would hope that someone would do the same for me”.

If these personal stories have inspired you to find out more, or to want to help in any way, then check out the Bremain in Spain dedicated ‘Ukraine in Spain’ page here. On it you will find background information, a list of ways you can help Ukrainian refugees in Spain, plus links to organisations and charities providing much needed aid. Thank you!

How Spain is outpacing the UK when it comes to women in politics

How Spain is outpacing the UK when it comes to women in politics

For over 100 years, International Women’s Day has celebrated women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements, writes Bremain Chair Sue Wilson MBE for Olive Press. In that time, the change in the way women are treated, or in the opportunities available to them, has been considerable. Yet in many important respects, women are still far from equal to their male counterparts in society, especially in the workplace.

In politics in the modern world, we are becoming more used to seeing countries led by women. Many of those female leaders have been many particularly noteworthy and inspiring, especially during the pandemic. Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Ursula von der Leyen are amongst those that have stood out for their compassion, their strength, their intelligence and their determination. However, in terms of the total numbers of politicians, men still make up the vast majority at all political levels.

Spain is leading the way in Europe with the largest number of women in parliament at close to 50%. In Cabinet, that number is even higher, with women taking the majority of ministerial roles, including that of Vice President. Not the top job yet though.

In many respects, Spain is still clinging to its macho past. However, the government are making considerable efforts to change that, and judging by the representation of women in parliament, those efforts are working.

By comparison, the UK is falling behind. Since 1918, there have only been a total of 558 female members of parliament. Until the end of 2016, there had been fewer women sitting in the House of Commons thoughout history than there were men sitting at any one time. 

Although numbers have increased to the current high of 224, currently male MPs outnumber female MPs in the Commons almost two to one. In the House of Lords, the representation of women is even worse, with them making up less than 28% of the total (231 out of 829). In the Cabinet, at the highest levels of British government, that number drops to just 26%, with only six women in ministerial positions.

Inequality for women in politics in Britain is also an issue of party. Adding together the opposition parties, almost 43% of positions are held by women. If you look at Labour on its own, that figure rises to 51%, with half of the Shadow Cabinet being female. By comparison, in the Conservative party, the figure drops to less than a third. Some parties, it would seem, are more equal than others.

Inequality for women in politics in Britain is also an issue of party. Adding together the opposition parties, almost 43% of positions are held by women. If you look at Labour on its own, that figure rises to 51%, with half of the Shadow Cabinet being female. By comparison, in the Conservative party, the figure drops to less than a third. Some parties, it would seem, are more equal than others.

As in Spain, British women make up just over half of the total UK population. Yet we are pitifully unrepresented in British politics and in British decision making. That said, we are not alone. Decisions being made by our government are not representative of the views of the majority of the British public, regardless of their sex. There’s a reason you no longer hear the once infamous cry of the “will of the people”. Even our government don’t try that lie on anymore. 

As long as important decisions affecting the future of our country are being made by rich, middle-aged, white men, its not just women whose voices won’t be heard. Inequality comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. We must fight it in every form, at every opportunity, for the benefit of men and women alike.

One year since Brexit …. still not ´done´

One year since Brexit …. still not ´done´

Bremain Chair Sue Wilson MBE takes a look back at the first year of Brexit in an article for The Olive Press:

The festivities are behind us, and for good or bad, we “got Christmas done”. If only the same could be said for Brexit. Not only is Brexit not “done” but it appears to be rather different to the one the country was promised. It does not do what it says on the side of the tin, or in this case, on the side of a bus.

I’m minded to write a letter to the government’s complaint department – yes, they do have one, I checked – but I think they might be rather overwhelmed at the moment dealing with other dissatisfied customers. Assuming, of course, that they are not all at a party, gathering or meeting.

Whether you voted for or against leaving the EU, there are few that can be happy with the outcome. In fact, public opinion has shifted considerably over the last 12 months, with only 14% of the British public now thinking Brexit is going well. Farmers and fishermen are suffering buyers’ remorse, businesses are concerned about lack of investment and staff and a mountain of red tape, and prices are rising. That’s before the UK have even implemented full customs checks on EU imports. We have yet to see what a full-on Brexit will actually even look like. I think we can be sure it won’t be pretty.

Still, new year, new day, and it’s not all bad news, right? As the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, said back in October 2016, “there will be no downsides to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides”. He may have been proved slightly wrong about the downsides, but those upsides are SO worth it! Australian wine is going to be 20p a bottle cheaper to import, and who drinks European wine anyway? British fisherman will be able to catch more fish in five years time, assuming they haven’t gone out of business by then. A popular favourite will be the return of imperial measures. Not only will Brits be able to drink pints of beer out of pint glasses again (did they ever stop doing that?), but Champagne is going to be served in pint bottles! I’m not entirely sure the French have been told about this development as yet, but I’m sure they’ll be only too happy to change productions lines just for us. And let’s not forget blue/black passports – the first passport in history to reduce our ability to travel.

Even those responsible for negotiating and implementing Brexit are not faring well. We’re already two Prime Ministers down, and the current incumbent’s position is looking a tad insecure. Then we have the Brexit Ministers – to lose one Brexit Secretary would have been bad enough. To lose four in five years is starting to look like carelessness. Or possibly, even the most devoted Brexit advocates just can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, no matter how much sovereignty they sprinkle on top.

 

Withdrawal Agreement

The latest development saw Lord Frost toddle off into the sunlit uplands/the House of Lords, perhaps to sign up for anger management classes. Frosty the No-Man has become Frosty the Go-Man, to be replaced by wearer of many hats, and many contradictory opinions, Liz Truss. As a former staunch Remainer, and even a Lib-Dem, we can only hope that Truss will take a less belligerent approach to Brexit negotiations, though first appearances would suggest otherwise. Still, in the spirit of New Year, I’d like to suggest a few resolutions she might wish to consider.

Firstly, she could break the habit of her predecessors, learn how the EU functions, and stop treating our European neighbours as the enemy. The role of a negotiator or diplomat, is to be well, diplomatic. Another step forward would be to end the threats and honour international agreements the UK signed up to. The EU can hardly be blamed for Brexit failing to live up to the rose-tinted promises of many a PM and Brexit Minister.

My biggest wish would be for the return of all that Brexit has stolen from us – our rights as EU citizens; our international standing and reputation for honesty, decency and tolerance; and a return to our place as a global economic power.

Brexit isn’t done – it’s not even close. But it is bonkers – for the economy, for jobs, for prices and for business. Brexit was mis-sold, and the country would like its deposit back please.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A closer, more efficient, economically viable relationship with the EU is not only possible, it’s worth fighting for. I’ll be happy to raise a 0.473 glass of Champagne to that any day of the week! In the meantime, maybe it’s time to send off my letter of complaint and ask for my money back.

 

Sue Wilson Writes: Do Britain’s political parties really care about Brits living in Spain?

Sue Wilson Writes: Do Britain’s political parties really care about Brits living in Spain?

Last week saw the publication of manifestos from the main political parties, ahead of the UK general election.

From the hundreds of pages already available, I’ve been reading the manifestos to see if Brits abroad merit a mention.

I won’t pretend to have read them in detail, but I’ve focused on pages relevant to Brits living in Europe.

The LibDems manifesto proves that it’s not just a one-policy party, solely intent on stopping Brexit.

Its manifesto includes a wide range of social, economic and environmental proposals.

One positive promise for Brits abroad is the restoration of full voting rights – a promise to return our ‘Votes for Life’.

It was something of a surprise to find the Conservatives offering to restore our voting rights too, though we have been here before with the defunct ‘Overseas Electors’ bill – a private members bill that never made it through parliament.

Labour’s manifesto is extensive and is considered the most radical.

It includes proposals for re-nationalisation of certain industries such as rail and mail, and massive spending commitments.

Labour pledges to maintain the triple lock on pensions – a commitment also made by the LibDems.

However, Labour goes one step further, specifically mentioning Brits abroad.

The manifesto states: “We will ensure that the pensions of UK citizens living overseas rise in line with pensions in Britain.”

Labour also commits to compensating ‘WASPI’ women – those born in the 1950s who have been deprived on thousands of pounds worth of pension payments.

During the televised leaders’ debate on Friday, the Prime Minister said he sympathised with WASPI women, but a solution would be expensive.

He responded to an audience question with: “I cannot promise that I can magic up that money for you.”

Unlike all the money the government has magicked-up to pay for Brexit.

The Conservative party manifesto was only published yesterday, but the headlines are a commitment to railroad the Brexit Bill through before Christmas, hold down taxes and “put more money back in people’s pockets”.

I suspect that the only people who will end up with more money will be those that need it the least, and certainly not those affected by the fluctuating exchange rate.

The Conservative manifesto also includes a number of crowd-pleasing initiatives, such as repairing potholes and axing hospital parking fees.

Rather begs the question as to why these wonderful new ideas, if considered so important, never came up in the last nine years of Conservative rule.

I have yet to find any further reference to our situation in Europe, but I’ll keep checking. Perhaps we are hidden somewhere in the small print.

A recent poll identified the NHS as the British public’s number one concern, with Brexit coming a close second.

All other topics fall way behind. It’s debatable whether Brexit is a major concern to British voters abroad.

It’s clearly the top priority for the Conservative party – we are all overfamiliar with the prime minister’s overused slogan, “get Brexit done”.

Brexit is certainly the priority for the Liberal Democrats. Labour, on the other hand, would prefer to focus the election on other important issues, such as an end to austerity, improving education, housing and social care, etc.

No matter what you consider important in British politics today, this is the Brexit election.

Even if Brexit isn’t your personal priority, it will still be a hugely significant factor. The outcome of the election, and Brexit, will determine whether there’s money in the coffers to pay for all the promises being made by the political parties.

The LibDems promise to use a £50bn “remain bonus” to fund their spending plans.

The Conservatives have criticised Labour for planning to spend £80bn on its radical programme, yet they’ve conveniently forgotten their own bill for Brexit runs to a similar figure, according to Bank of England estimates.

Meanwhile, the treasury refuses to confirm the extra cost of the government’s Brexit plans – perhaps believing that the public’s ignorance is bliss.

For those lucky enough to retain a vote in the general election, our reasons for choosing a party will be personal and varied. We may have supported the party for years.

Our vote may be cast based on our feelings about Brexit.

Or we might decide based on the content of the manifestos and the promises of a different – and, hopefully, better – future for the UK.

For me, as a strong Remainer, I care less (at least for the moment), what policies my candidate is promising to implement.

I won’t be voting for the party that most closely matches my personal preferences.

I won’t be voting for the party that I supported for over four decades, or the party I’m likely to choose in the next general election.

Rather, I’ll be voting for the party with the best chance of removing my Conservative MP from his relatively safe seat.

So, please read the manifestos and understand what your candidate and party represent.

Then hold your nose, forget your tribal instincts and vote to #GetTheToriesOut!

We need to be rid of this government and rid of Brexit, so we can concentrate on putting the UK back together and undoing all the damage.

Thank you all the same, Mr. Johnson, but no, I don’t want Brexit, or another five years of Tory government for Christmas, if it’s all the same to you.

Sue Wilson Writes: Why the Spanish election result brings hope for Britons fearing Brexit

Sue Wilson Writes: Why the Spanish election result brings hope for Britons fearing Brexit

Sue on panel at European ParliamentThanks to Brexit, I’ve recently taken more interest in British politics than in the political situation here in Spain. I’ve focused on the forthcoming British election, rather than on the Spanish one, although both have come around rather quickly!

It could be argued that the general election in Spain will affect the lives of British migrants more than the British general election. For many British citizens in Spain who are younger and working, that’s probably true. They pay into the Spanish system, are entitled to Spanish healthcare, and will have Spanish state pensions. They may have Spanish spouses and family. Their kids probably speak Spanish first, English second, and will be completely integrated into Spanish society. Meanwhile, many Leave voters in the UK tell me that I voted with my feet – by moving to Spain – and, therefore, I should have no further say in British politics.

 

As a retired Brit relying on a state pension from the UK, I feel more in the hands of the British government than the Spanish one. The British government pays for my healthcare and determines the value of my pension and whether it will continue to increase annually. Since the June 2016 referendum, Brexit has determined the value of my monthly income, because all the political twists and turns have daily affected the Pound to Euro exchange rate.

Another personal factor is that I can still vote in the imminent British election – although possibly for the last time. In Spain, I can’t vote for the national government because all Brits here are disenfranchised from doing so. Sadly, many of us are disenfranchised from voting for any national government, thanks to broken promises by the Conservative government about restoring Votes for Life.

While I was being distracted by Brexit, last week’s Spanish election rather snuck up on me. For some time, Spanish politics has existed in a state of upheaval. Unsurprisingly, with so many problems at home, the Spanish public and media have only taken a passing interest in British politics and Brexit.

Following the recent Spanish election result, we can see light at the end of the political tunnel here. The rise of the far-right – not just in Spain but across Europe – has been an ongoing concern. Many people thought that recent events in Catalonia would see the Vox party increasing in popularity and power.

While Vox did increase its share of the vote, becoming the third largest force in congress with 52 seats, the actual result was that Spain now has a left-wing coalition government. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez achieved a governing alliance between the Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos within hours of the election – a seemingly impossible feat. With 155 seats between them, PSOE/Podemos still need the endorsement of other parties. However, there’s hope that Spanish politics can finally move forwards and spare the country yet another election.

The EU welcomed the news from Spain “with much more relief than concern”. The rise of the far-right has worried the EU for some time. Yet, despite Vox rising in popularity, Spain now has one of the most left-wing governments in Europe.

We’re right to be concerned about the growth of nationalist and far-right groups, both in the UK and Spain. Nevertheless, the outcome of the Spanish election proves that the right gaining support doesn’t necessarily lead to a more right-wing government.

Back in the UK, the Brexit Party may gain further support from the British public on December 12th, but this doesn’t guarantee it a single seat in the next parliament. With the British ‘first past the post’ electoral system, support does not necessarily translate into power.

The result of the forthcoming British election is proving almost impossible to predict, with many voters determined not to vote along normal party lines, putting Brexit ahead of more usual political concerns. If all goes well, the outcome will end the rule of the most right-wing British government I’ve seen since I’ve been old enough to vote.

Let’s hope the new British government can learn lessons from Spain and work cross-party to form a coalition for the benefit of the nation. If that happens, perhaps we can avoid further elections for a few years – in Spain and Britain.

Article from The Local

 

Sue Wilson Writes: Why a proxy vote is the best option for those expats with right to vote in UK election

Sue Wilson Writes: Why a proxy vote is the best option for those expats with right to vote in UK election

Now that the general election campaign (yes, another one!) has officially commenced in Britain, it’s time to ensure you can cast your vote.  

If you’re already registered to vote, you can do so in person, post or proxy. If you’re not registered, you must apply to become an overseas voter. Those already registered need to verify that their registration is still current, as it must be renewed annually.

If you haven’t renewed your registration since the 2015 election, you must do so by midnight November 26th. However, we recommend not leaving this process until the last minute, as it will leave insufficient time to apply for a postal or proxy vote.

Based on previous experience, I would strongly recommend applying for a proxy vote, if you cannot vote in person. During the referendum, the 2015 general election and the recent European elections, many people who relied on postal votes were badly let down.

Either postal forms weren’t issued in time to be completed and returned before the deadline, or not issued at all. After the European elections, some local authorities openly admitted that they had failed to comply with postal vote requests.

Around 60 percent of British citizens overseas are already disenfranchised because of the 15-year voting rule. This is a sore point for people who are being forced to live with decisions that affect their lives, but over which they have no say.

For those who still have their democratic voting rights, it’s infuriating to have them removed by a UK council that has failed to issue postal ballots to overseas voters.

Those with no experience of proxy voting often assume that you need to find a friend or family member living in your local constituency to act on your behalf. While that is certainly one option, there are others. My personal method – and a popular one – is to have my preferred candidate do the work for me.

Once your name is on the electoral register in your former constituency (the address where you last resided in the UK), you can apply for a proxy vote. This is an easy process which can be started online. However, your ‘hard copy’ form must be received by post by your local Electoral Registration Office by December 4th (and beware the UK pre-Christmas post slow-down and planned postal strike).

When you’ve decided on your preferred political candidate, and have been granted a proxy vote, you can approach the local constituency office of your chosen candidate. The office will assign a proxy for you and, clearly, they have a vested interest in ensuring that the process works.

For the disenfranchised, there are still ways to be heard in this election. You can encourage friends and family members, in Spain and the UK, to register and vote. You may have young family members who’ve never voted and don’t know how. For example, students may not be aware that they can register to vote in their home town and their university town. They can only vote once but registering in two different places gives them more flexibility when the time comes.

It remains to be seen whether “Votes for Life” – the former Overseas Electors Bill – proceeds into any party manifestos, but we live in hope. Bremain in Spain will continue to campaign to have voting rights restored to all overseas voters. In the meantime, if you can vote, please do so. You’re not just voting for yourself but for the hundreds of thousands of people who cannot vote in this election.

From The Local