UKREN blog

Friday 8 July 2016

Brexit and potential human rights implications


A small majority of UK eligible voters said that the UK should leave the EU in the referendum on 23 June. This post will look at some of the main human rights implications of the UK government invoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and starting the countdown to leaving the EU.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights covers political, social and economic rights: dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights and justice. Although the Charter is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, many see it as a more modern codification because includes such rights as data protection, which was not an issue when the European Convention on Human Rights was passed in 1950. On leaving the EU, this would no longer apply to the UK.

European Convention on Human Rights

But we would still have the European Convention on Human Rights you might argue. True, but for how long and in what form? It has been a Conservative Party manifesto promise for many years to replace the Human Rights Act, which makes the European Convention accessible as a UK law, with a British Bill of Rights. A leading contender for the Conservative Party leadership, Theresa May, said in the EU referendum debates that the UK should leave the European Convention. Although very recently she has changed her mind, I’m sure that I am not alone in not trusting what politicians say. So a new PM may well repeal the Human Rights Act and bring in a new Bill of Rights, which may or may not be compatible with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention. One to watch carefully.

Immigration and refugee rights

Immigration and refugee rights. Two separate issues but bundled together by the government. All the implications are from a leave campaign that was heavily anti-migrant that on leaving the EU, the UK will tighten its immigration controls making it much harder for those who are not rich or skilled in specific professions to enter the UK to live here. Although the UK government may do the minimum on its commitments to refugees fleeing persecution, living on an island outside of the EU, it could well see the present movement of people across Europe from Syria, Eritrea and other countries as an EU problem, not the UK’s.

Freedom of movement

The issue that politicians campaigning for the UK to leave the EU railed about was freedom of movement. Outside of the EU, the UK would not have to admit people from other EU countries. Or would it? The UK would want to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU and from what EU leaders have said, it looks impossible that this would not have freedom of movement, as well as goods, as a condition. So will a future PM prioritise trade or keeping people out? David Cameron in parliament refused to give any guarantee that EU nationals already in UK would not be removed after Brexit. This is worrying. The government has been steadily removing EU nationals that have become unemployed or homeless. It refused to respond to a freedom of information request on the numbers and the countries on the grounds that this was too sensitive an issue with other countries to make public. Can you imagine the 2.5 million Brits living in other EU countries being told to leave? And visas to holiday in France or Spain? Hard to see how the promises made during and now after the referendum to severely limit freedom of movement will pan out.

Social and employment rights

The EU Directives that brought these about would no longer apply to the UK after Brexit, although these rights are transposed into UK law. After leaving the EU they could be eroded through the introduction of new laws. With no protection from a minimum standard set by the EU, things like maternity leave and pay, maximum working hours etc might be changed. The government has viewed many social and employment rights in the past as ‘red tape’ that limits business making maximum profits.

Equality

The government has slowed down on fully implementing the Equality Act 2010. It has dramatically cut the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to oversee equality standards in the UK. Expect further erosion of equality duties.

Role of NGOs

I haven’t painted a happy picture for human rights post Brexit. Of course it is impossible to say with certainty what will happen when politicians standing for leader of the Conservative Party and by implication, Prime Minister, regularly change their policy ideas so that they stand a greater chance of being nominated. However, there is much that the voluntary sector can do. NGOs can stand together in solidarity and work in collaboration to insist that there are no changes to human rights standards, to equality or to social policy. The fact that the Human Rights Act has not been repealed is partially due to the strong campaigning of NGOs like Liberty and Amnesty International and many others. At the moment we have a power vacuum with the two main political parties imploding. NGOs can fill this void (as NGOs did in Northern Ireland before the Peace Agreement) with communication that informs public opinion of the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. To quote Oprah Winfrey for a change (why not?) “When there is no struggle, there is no strength”.

Alan Anstead, Coordinator, UKREN

This blog first appeared on Migrants' Rights Network

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