The United Kingdom Parliament’s decision on Tuesday night to reject decisively the European Union withdrawal agreement leaves the country’s future up in the air.
While the Brexit deal Parliament just rejected said little about human rights, it did provide guarantees for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the 27 other EU states. And the linked declaration that set out the expected terms for future UK-EU relations made respect for human rights an important criterion for close ties.
The clock is ticking. Unless a deal acceptable to both the UK parliament and the EU can be found, the UK and the EU agree to postpone Brexit, or the UK revokes Article 50 altogether, the UK will leave Europe without a deal on March 29 at 11pm GMT.
That would be bad news for human rights.
Uncertainty on residence rights is a major concern. The UK says it will guarantee the residence rights of EU citizens already living in the UK. But the EU has said it is up to individual EU countries to guarantee rights for UK citizens. Some, including Spain, Germany, and Italy have done so publicly. All EU member states should urgently follow suit.
No-deal Brexit would not immediately sweep away workers’ protections or discrimination and privacy rights in the UK that derive from EU law. Those would stay protected by UK law until the government and parliament removed them. But the UK government explicitly refused to include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in domestic law, which would prevent the UK from watering down rights in future. Under a no-deal Brexit, if the UK economy stagnates, it’s easy to imagine growing calls to deregulate, including weakening EU-derived workers’ rights in the name of “competitiveness.”
Brexit exposed dangerous fault lines in UK politics and society, with the murder of parliamentarian Jo Cox and a rash of hate crimes around the 2016 vote. A police watchdog has asked officers to be ready for further enmity in the event of no deal. Whatever comes next, it is vital that political leaders, media editors, and others acknowledge that those who disagree with them should be free to speak their minds without fear.