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Start of Brexit Reminds Us Rights are at Risk

UK Should Protect EU Residents and Secure Human Rights as it Exits

The clock is ticking. Two years from today, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

It is a moment that carries real risks for human rights.

Britain's permanent representative to the European Union Tim Barrow delivers British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit letter in notice of the UK's intention to leave the bloc under Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty to EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels, March 29, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The wave of hate crimes that followed the Brexit vote last June on the back of a referendum campaign tinged with xenophobia made one thing clear: Some believe Brexit is a mandate to get rid of EU citizens and others perceived as foreigners. The UK government should have guaranteed the right of EU citizens residing here right away, signaling that those who shout “go home” are wrong.

Nine months on, it has not just failed to make any such guarantee, it actively opposed attempts in parliament to do so. Guarantees for EU citizens should be a priority in UK negotiations with the EU, and UK authorities must stamp out any attempt to exploit Brexit to stir up hatred or violence against foreigners.

Leaving the EU means the UK may no longer have to maintain rights protections derived from EU law in three key areas: employment rights, anti-discrimination law, and rights from the EU’s human rights charter, including privacy rights around state surveillance.

During the two-year withdrawal period, these protections will remain. And the government says it intends – at first – to incorporate all of them into UK domestic law. But the day after the UK leaves the EU, everything may be up for grabs.

A major danger to these protections would come if negotiations falter and new trade agreements drag, and the government becomes tempted to water down employees’ rights to create a “low regulation” economy. Some people are already calling on the government to remove restrictions on long working hours that benefit workers. 

But surely parliament will step in to prevent such a move? Not necessarily, especially if the “Great Repeal Bill” to move EU rules into domestic law contains a clause to allow the government to change laws without parliamentary debate. It’s critical that any laws relating to human rights are excluded from such a clause.

And it is also vital that parliament fights any attempt by the government to further weaken rights by leaving the Council of Europe – the continent’s leading human rights club – as the government has hinted it may do after Brexit. That would deprive people in Britain of protection from the European Court of Human Rights, and weaken an institution that offers the only chance for justice for millions of people in Europe. 

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