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The EU and Union flags flying outside Parliament in Westminster, London. September 5, 2017.

Unpacking Brexit: the UK’s Decision to Leave the European Union

The EU and Union flags flying outside Parliament in Westminster, London. September 5, 2017. © 2017 Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto/Getty Images

On June 24, 2016, the United Kingdom awoke to a political earthquake: against all predictions, the country had voted to leave the European Union (EU). A long-awaited referendum campaign had suddenly delivered a result few people expected and a mandate no one was quite sure how to carry out. Three years later, the UK has still not left the EU, and continues to negotiate its departure with Europe. ‘Brexit’ has so far cost two prime ministers their jobs and divided governments, political parties, and the public alike. So what happens now and what does it mean for human rights? Stephanie Hancock spoke to Benjamin Ward, acting UK director at Human Rights Watch.

Why is Brexit all over the news right now?

There is a looming deadline, which is that at the end of October 2019, unless the UK government can reach an agreement with the EU and 27 other EU countries, or something else happens, then the UK may leave the EU without a ‘divorce settlement’ in place – what’s termed a ‘no-deal Brexit.’ And the consequences of that would be very serious for the country.

What happens in a no-deal Brexit?

A no-deal Brexit means the UK would suddenly leave the EU overnight on October 31. Every agreement governing how the UK and the EU interact and trade with each other – some of which have taken years to put in place – would cease immediately.

Volunteers at the Wisbech food bank, Cambridgeshire make up an emergency parcel suitable for a large family, April 2019. This food bank can sometimes offer families with children an additional £5 voucher to be redeemed at the local butcher or greengrocers.  © 2019 Human Rights Watch/Kartik Raj

This means people would lose the right to travel freely between the UK and the EU, and goods going between the UK and the EU would need extra checks. That could lead to long delays at borders. It could be very chaotic, and supplies of fuel, food, and medicines into the UK could be threatened, which will negatively impact people’s human rights. Prices for food imported into the UK from the EU could also increase, as it will cost more to import without a trade deal, and because shortages could push up prices.

A no-deal Brexit would also create uncertainty for millions of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in other EU countries, since the agreements between the UK and the EU on their rights would not be in place. It could also mean a watering down of people’s rights in the future, because the UK would no longer need to follow EU standards on employment and other rights.

Why haven’t politicians figured out how to pull off Brexit yet?

One of the difficulties is that when the referendum was held in 2016, people were asked if they wanted to stay in the EU or leave the EU. But it wasn’t specified on what basis the UK would leave the EU, and in practice there are a whole range of different ways it could do so. So, there isn’t a consensus about what Brexit means, and that has led to disagreement about how it should happen.

Some people say the UK Parliament is trying to block Brexit. Is that true?

I don’t think it’s true that Parliament is trying to block Brexit. Parliament is trying to block a no-deal Brexit, and there are good reasons for that.

There also isn’t a consensus among Members of Parliament (MPs) about what form of Brexit is the best one, or the least harmful one. Getting them to agree has been very tough, especially when it’s not enough for MPs to agree – their option also has to be acceptable to the other 27 EU countries.

This may be perceived by people outside Parliament as an attempt to frustrate Brexit, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Union Jack flags fluttering outside Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, October 1, 2019. © 2019 Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

What does the government say about a no-deal?

The government has published some of the planning it’s done around the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and the document indicates the impact could be quite severe for fresh food and medicine supplies. The government’s own assessment is that if these shortages occur, they would have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups – people on lower incomes and those who are already struggling to make ends meet.

How will people’s lives actually be affected by a no-deal?

If there are price rises and shortages of fresh food, as well as shortages of essential medicines, that will directly affect people. For people who are sick, this will impact their health, and for people already struggling, it could directly impact their ability to feed their families. One of the concerns about the food shortages is that it could trigger panic buying or stockpiling, which could exacerbate the problem.

The government says it’s prepared. Why don’t some people believe this?

There are limits on what planning can be done. The UK is dependent on imports of fresh food, and that food is perishable so can’t be stockpiled. Similarly, with vaccines and other medications that have to be refrigerated, not all of them can be stockpiled for that same reason. The need for new border inspections means that there are likely to be disruptions at the Channel ports. The shortages and price rises may not persist for a long time, but could cause real harm to people's rights.

Abdalkarim Sama, a volunteer at Sufra Food Bank, sorts through tinned food in the storage section on site at Sufra Food Bank, in Brent, Northwest London, October 9, 2019. © 2019 Human Rights Watch/Kartik Raj

There is also concern that the government is expecting the food industry to take primary responsibility for ensuring that food distribution continues. Given rising food poverty in the UK and the skyrocketing use of food banks, it’s not right for the government to abdicate responsibility to the food industry.

If the UK gets a Brexit deal, will things be O.K.?

It would avoid all the problems of a no-deal, but the impact on rights will depend on what kind of Brexit is negotiated. Take the issue of EU citizens living in Britain and their right to residence. The UK government says it will guarantee the rights of EU citizens, but there are real concerns given the Windrush scandal – British citizens who were invited to the UK from the Caribbean many years ago  have recently been deported or denied UK passports because they cannot prove when they arrived – that some EU citizens may face these same problems. There have already been cases like this.

Other rights stem from your right to residence, including the right to work, the right to have your immediate family members live with you, and the right for you and your family to access healthcare services.

Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, holds documents as he poses with European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium July 19, 2018. © 2018 Reuters/Francois Lenoir

And there are longer-term concerns too. For example, under the draft Brexit deal the previous UK government negotiated with the EU, the UK would no longer be part of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. That could mean human rights protected by the charter – like the right to privacy, employment rights, and discrimination protections – get watered down in the future.

At the moment, these rights will still be maintained in UK law, but a future UK government could weaken them. For example, if the UK economy went into recession after Brexit, some people in the ruling Conservative Party have already argued it may be necessary to weaken workers’ protections, which they’d characterize as “deregulation,” to make it more attractive for businesses to set up in the UK.

Why are people so worried about Northern Ireland?

The history is very complicated, but essentially there are divisions within society in Northern Ireland. Some people would like to have close ties to the Republic of Ireland, and some would like to remain part of the UK, and that, in the past, has led to violence. One of the reasons that the peace agreement, signed just over 20 years ago, works is that the UK and Ireland both being in the EU allowed the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to become invisible, so people who live in the border area can freely cross to work, go to school, or visit family. Before the agreement, the border had multiple army checkpoints. Goods and people can now move across without any restrictions, and that’s been an important part of alleviating tensions.

But a no-deal Brexit means a hard border would have to be put in place. The worry is that would re-expose that very binary choice for people of being part of the UK, or being part of the Republic of Ireland. And, historically, when there was a hard border, there was violence at border posts and in border areas. That's why people are concerned that the border remains open.

So freedom of movement is a key issue. And the authorities need to protect everyone’s right to security.

Why is the political debate around Brexit so toxic?

As the efforts to build a consensus around a form of Brexit have run into difficulty, the atmosphere in parliament has become extremely acrimonious. And I think it’s fair to say that since the new Prime Minister came into office and appointed a new government, that the sense of division has deepened.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks outside 10 Downing Street, London, July 24, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Parliament has a reputation for being a place where debate is quite robust, as it should be. Freedom of speech is essential for political debate. But what’s worrying now is this false idea that the democratically-elected parliament of the country is somehow acting against the will of the people, and that MPs trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit for good reasons are “traitors” or engaged in “surrender.” This language evokes wartime, and could suggest that political opponents are enemies who deserve punishment.

Language used in parliamentary political debate can cut through into society and the national conversation, and there is real concern that this rhetoric is raising political temperatures in ways that is potentially dangerous. MPs – particularly women MPs – have faced threats before, especially on social media. And given an MP, Jo Cox, was killed a few days before the referendum vote in 2016 by a far-right extremist, I think MPs are right to worry about their personal safety.

I think the government has a responsibility to show leadership and tamp down on its rhetoric. And the opposition parties need to do their bit as well. It is a very febrile atmosphere

Why is Brexit so divisive?

It certainly has split the country. A recent poll suggested that more people have a stronger feeling about the question of Brexit than they do about which political party they support. Brexit has become a symbol of your beliefs and a way of defining yourself on a whole range of other issues. Because it’s not clear what form of Brexit people voted for, it’s a bit of an empty vessel – people fill it with their own values. And it’s clear people feel very invested in the issue.

Did Brexit cause the rise in hate crime and racism we have seen in the UK?

Graffiti on a wall in Devon, UK, in July 2016. © Private, used with permission.

I wouldn’t attribute it to Brexit itself, but the conversation around Brexit has created a space in which it’s become more acceptable to express xenophobic, intolerant, and racist views. And the rash of attacks directed against EU citizens that followed the 2016 vote – especially towards people from central and eastern Europe – suggests that some people interpreted the referendum result as a decision not simply to end free movement of EU citizens to the UK, but also to actually move – or remove – EU citizens from the UK who are already living here.

What’s heartening is that this narrative has been resoundingly rejected by all political parties, and the police are very vigilant about it. But how political leaders, the media, and society address the intolerance and hatred that the last few years seem to have given people permission to express is a profound challenge. It requires political leadership to knit the country back together. It requires education, so that people understand intolerance is not acceptable. And if there is actual incitement to violence or xenophobic attacks, police and the justice system should act swiftly to prevent and prosecute such crimes.

Is Brexit a political crisis or are institutions coping well?

The key thing to focus on is not only the outcome but also the process. Some institutions are doing a good job: parliament has come together to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and the courts have acted to uphold parliamentary sovereignty. It’s very important that the government demonstrates its respect for democratic institutions – including parliament, the courts, and the media – and recognizes that they are doing their job of holding the executive to account in a democracy.

Has the UK government been doing this?

No, it hasn’t, and that’s a real worry. It’s been saying Parliament is against the people, criticizing court rulings, suggesting it may not obey the law – these things are quite damaging. It seems to be causing the fraying of the democratic fabric, and I hope that’s something that will change.

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