In a speech on 3 February, Boris Johnson declared that Britain does not need a deal with the EU as he began trade negotiations by seeking to turn Brussels’s own demands against it. The prime minister said the UK would emerge as a “campaigner for global free trade” at the same time as warning that he would rather accept tariffs than EU law.
Last week, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to maintain a focus on human rights in his government’s domestic and foreign policy agenda and to ensure that mechanisms to protect people’s rights are not downgraded.
“Promoting respect for human rights and the rule of law is vital for the UK’s place in the world after Brexit,” the open letter stated.
While the UK officially left the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday, it will remain wedded to EU rules during a transition period which ends in December this year – the PM has said it will not be extended.
Three years after the EU Brexit referendum, the issue is causing deep strain to the country’s politics and constitution in ways that put the institutions that protect human rights at risk. It is also unclear if EU law-derived human rights protections will be maintained post-Brexit, including for EU citizens resident in the UK.
As Brussels set out its own negotiating position, Mr Johnson rejected the EU position out of hand as he insisted:
“There is no need in a free trade deal to accept EU rules on competition, subsidies or environment.”
In 2016 the EU signed a trade agreement with Canada – and this deal could be a template for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, if Mr Johnson gets his way. The agreement removed 98% of tariffs on goods traded between Ottawa and the EU.
The EU has demanded that in exchange for a Canada-style free trade deal, Britain must commit to following European rules on workers’ rights, the environment and subsidies. However, when the UK leaves the EU, it also leaves the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which includes the protection of rights such as employment rights, equality and privacy, to mention a few. That could mean that human rights currently protected by the Charter 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 would characterise as “deregulation,” to make it more attractive for businesses to set up in the UK.
David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s own independent human rights watchdog, told the BBC:
“The government has promised there will be no rowing back on people’s rights after Brexit. If we lose the charter protections, that promise will be broken. It will cause legal confusion and there will be gaps in the law. While securing trade deals is vital for our economy, equality and human rights are also essential.”
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, set the confrontational tone yesterday when he said that agreeing to align with EU rules would “defeat the point of Brexit” and would not be on the table. Earlier this year, Mr Raab said the UK’s departure from the EU would allow Britain to act more decisively to tackle human rights abuses and Britain is preparing to activate a new post-Brexit sanctions regime that would be used to freeze the assets of Russian citizens and those of other countries deemed responsible for human rights abuses.
Last month, the International Observatory of Human Rights met with the Liberal Democrat MEP Irina Von Wiese to discuss the impact of Brexit on Britain’s ability to defend human rights. Watch the interview below.