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Clampdown on human rights if the UK crashes out of EU without a deal

On 31 October 2019 – despite the efforts of policy makers from all sides of the political spectrum – the UK is set to crash out of the European Union without a deal, leaving three million EU citizens currently living in the UK and one million Britons on the continent in limbo. The plan, or lack thereof, to leave without a deal on future trade and cooperation has been widely condemned by human rights groups, as access to medicines, food, freedom of movement and security will all be hindered in such a scenario.

The end of freedom of movement

One of the central tenets of the Vote Leave movement was the rhetoric around reducing immigration into the UK, namely by ending freedom of movement for EU citizens to and from the country. On 18 August 2019, Priti Patel – the new Home Secretary – announced plans to end freedom of movement immediately upon leaving without a deal, despite no replacement system being in place. The release of these plans has been widely criticised and had previously been dismissed by Sajid Javid, Ms. Patel’s predecessor, as it was “not practical” to end without a transition period.

The end of free movement will mean that UK and EU citizens would not enjoy the same ability to work, travel and live around Europe.

EU citizens will still be able to enter the UK to visit, work and study, but those wanting to stay longer than three months will have to apply to receive permission, which would only be valid for three years.

The rights of EU citizens country are addressed in the UK government’s policy paper on citizens’ rights, which states that EU citizens and their family members are “welcome to stay” and enjoy the same rights and benefits as they do now. However, to stay in the UK requires EU citizens to go through the EU Settlement Scheme. Currently only one third of EU citizens within the UK have registered through the scheme. Contrary to reports however, the deadline for applying to the scheme will not be brought forward in the case of a no deal, and will remain 31 December 2020.

Equally concerning is the question of the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries. The European Commission has stated it is “putting citizens’ rights first” in its Contingency Action Plan for a no-deal scenario. However, the 12-page document is inevitably incomparable in detail to the 600-page withdrawal agreement ironed out through months of negotiations. While the Commission has urged member states to “take all possible steps to ensure legal certainty” and protect previously existing rights in relation to social security, the decision on how to treat UK citizens will ultimately be up to individual states.

Food, medicine and fuel

This week a leaked government memo has revealed that the UK will face a three-month meltdown at ports in the events of a no deal leading to shortages of food, medicine and fuel. There is further evidence to support the fact that a no-deal Brexit is also likely to bring disastrous effects on supply chains of vital products coming into the country.

The UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has warned that no deal would have a ‘disastrous’ impact on food availability. Leaving the UK without a deal would see further trading with Europe take place through the frame of the World Trade Organization and would see the country crash out of another 40 trade deals that it currently has access to through EU agreements.

The UK currently imports 30% of its food through Europe, so leaving without a transition period would inevitably lead to higher food prices and empty shelves.

According to Steve Bates, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association (BIA), the current system for medicines is made possible because every step of the pan-European supply change is regulated. These supply chains for medicine will suffer greatly under a no-deal Brexit as the current system, mostly using a ‘just in time’ manufacturing model, would be impossible to maintain in the short term. Critical and short shelf-life medicines are most vulnerable in a no-deal scenario.

The fact that only one million people are currently registered under the settled status programme has also been criticised by the BMA for placing new burdens on hospitals, that will now be required to carry out immigration checks on thousands of patients who might not be easily able to prove their right to free care.


On 7 August 2019, Neil Basu, Britain’s head of counter-terrorism policing, said that the UK’s safety and security would suffer as a result of no deal and no amount of planning could prevent that risk. Basu expressed concern over the UK’s loss of access to the Schengen Information System II database which currently gives the UK fast access to intelligence and data. It will also lose information on passenger name records and the ability to use European arrest warrants.

Alongside these concerns, a no-deal Brexit would see a return of Interpol alerts and the reliance on the 1957 European convention on extradition, under which it could take years to return a suspect, instead of the current six weeks with a European arrest warrant.

The end of the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights

In June 2018 the EU Withdrawal Act legislated for almost all EU laws to be incorporated into domestic laws. However, it decided not to encapsulate the EU Charter on Fundamental rights. The Bingham Centre has commented,

“It is clear beyond doubt that non-retention of the Charter will lead to a loss of the current level of rights protection available to individuals and businesses under EU law”.

Firstly, that charter protects rights that did not otherwise enjoy clear legal protection, such as the right to protection of personal data. It also provides a direct cause of action in action to respect of those rights including access to legal remedies. Finally, as a matter of EU law those legal remedies currently include a power in the courts to disapply legislation.

Moreover, upon leaving the EU, UK Ministers will shockingly be able to amend primary legislation on a number of acts without full parliamentary scrutiny, this includes: The Modern Slavery Act, the Equality Act, the Data protection Act, protection of the rights of the child, fair trial rights, and laws around refugee rights and academic freedom. This means that should the UK crash out of Europe without a deal, UK human rights face a serious threat.

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