Brexit: What Will Happen To Human Rights When Britain Leaves The EU?


Brexit means Brexit, only no one is quite sure what that means. The Prime Minister, Teresa May, suggested it meant a "red, white and blue" Brexit, which is hardly enlightening.

If anything is clear about the national embarrassment that was the vote to leave the European Union, it is that no one had a clue what it would actually involve or how much it would cost. The spectacle of politicians scrabbling to conceal their treasonous ineptitude suggests a new take on the parable of the Emperor's New Clothes: the chicken that claims to be on a purposeful march to take its country back has, in fact, no head.

One of the many things that has yet to be clarified by the government is what it thinks about human rights. This was a right-wing dog-whistle theme in the referendum campaign. 'Europe' was stopping us controlling terrorism because it wouldn't let us deport undesirable people who had families here.

One of the ramifications of the Brexit muddle is that EU nationals living here and Britons living abroad don't know whether they're going to be able to stay. The government has also declined to say what will happen to rights currently protected under EU law when it publishes its 'Great Repeal Bill'. EU law underpins many fundamental rights; what will happen to privacy and data rights and rights against discrimination? No one knows.

Now parliament's Joint Select Committee on Human Rights has stepped in with a surprisingly sharp report. It has urged the government not to use individuals' fundamental rights as a bargaining chip with the EU. It notes that international trade secretary Liam Fox has reportedly described EU nationals in the UK as one of the "main cards" in Brexit negotiations. The report says it's wrong to treat people as collateral; the government should clarify residence rights as soon as possible to avoid causing "continuing and distressing insecurity".

It also notes that current trade agreements under EU law include human rights clauses; British companies can't do business with oppressive and violent regimes. The government "should, at the very least, ensure that the standards included in current agreements are maintained", the report says, adding that "there is an argument to be made that if the UK enters into any new agreements, this is an opportunity to raise standards".

Now, the complicating factor in all of this is Britain's continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, from which EU law in this area flows. Conservatives are not natural cheerleaders for the ECHR; when Teresa May was Home Secretary she said Britain should pull out, though she later backtracked. However, repeal EU law and there is still an appeal to the ECHR – expensive, protracted and infuriating to Brexiters.

The political and ideological turmoil around Brexit has sickened many of us to the point where we feel an actual aversion to engaging with it. However, Christians ought to be concerned about human rights. Human rights are about protecting the vulnerable. Among them are people who think they might be deported if governments can't strike a deal. Among them are also people oppressed and exploited in their own countries, whom EU law prevents Britain exploiting too.

In the US, Donald Trump's slogan is 'Make America Great Again'. We have nothing quite so catchy in the UK, but there's no doubt that large numbers of Leave voters were driven by the same sort of tainted nostalgia. However, human rights legislation represents a moral and practical advance. It has made life better for everyone. It needs to be guarded against those who want to unpick it for the sake of a return to an imagined past, which – as we will surely find out during the next few years – wasn't nearly as good as the future we are throwing away.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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