Aladdin Benali | February 24, 2020
Before Brexit, the UK had participated in EU policies that harness its power as the world’s largest trading bloc to infuse ethical and normative objectives into trade agreements. Leaving the EU means for the first time in 40 years, international trade policy will return to the UK Government’s competence. Under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2020, the UK now has the power to negotiate ‘Free Trade Agreements’ with ‘third’ non-EU countries during the transition period that will enter into force 31 December 2020.
Not enough attention, however, has been paid to the challenges the UK faces in promoting human rights across the world through conducting international trade policy alone. Britain’s ability to safeguard human rights across the world is severely at risk.
Trade has always been about more than simply exchanging goods and services. International trade policy these days captures all aspects of human life and shapes the legal economic and political environment. EU policymakers now possess a sophisticated array of instruments to promote human rights in external trade policy. Such rights include labour rights, indigenous and cultural rights transparency and anti-corruption, and environmental standards.
What sort of policies does the EU already have in place?
One policy is to incorporate human rights clauses in all new trade agreements. Such a clause looks something like this:
“Respect for human rights,democratic principles and the rule of law … shall underpin the domestic and international policies of the Parties and constitute the essential elements of this Agreement.” (Cotonou Agreement with ACP countries, Article 9(2))
Another policy has been to proactively ensure developing countries pay attention to respecting human rights. Under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Regulation (No 978/2012), the EU may grant preferential trade access to the single market on the condition that they respect human rights and basic labour rights norms. For example, the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) policy, has given 49 the world’s poorest countries like Haiti or Cambodia duty-free and quota-free exports access to the largest market in the world.
Without the EU
The UK now faces a hard reality: When it comes to effectively negotiating the inclusion of rights in trade negotiations, size matters. Decreased bargaining power as a single nation outside the EU translates into severe challenges in bilateral trade negotiations.
Also faced with the time pressure of the transition period, the UK will be tempted to omit key protections to chase quick trade deals. Some countries are already taking aim to weaken Britain’s rights standards in exchange for progress on post-Brexit trade. Experts fear that the Conservative government is neither willing nor able to incorporate adequate rights provisions as Britain ceases to participate in EU rights-based trade policy.
However, Brexit need not mean a deterioration of rights protections. The UK has two key opportunities in negotiating its own trade deals to achieve a truly progressive agenda compatible with UK’s international obligations, like those under the European Convention on Human Rights.
First, Britain now has the power to establish a gold standard for human rights after the transition period. While having already committed to continuing the GSP, the UK has failed to maintain human rights protections in most Continuity Agreements signed. Future clauses should, for example, contain robust clauses that allow for suspension upon non-adherence in line with the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ recommendations.
Second, the Government can improve on shortcomings of the design and execution of the existing EU rights framework. There has been considerable academic criticism of the consistency of the EU’s conditionality and monitoring mechanisms and incentives and deterrents to conditionality clauses. Oversight must be shared with Parliament which surpasses government’s consultation obligations under Part 2 Constitutional Reform and Government Act 2010 where necessary.
What happens if the UK fails to develop a coherent rights-based trade policy? Other countries are ready to use their leverage to promote their priorities. Trump’s US will seek to undermine the historic values-based trade policy to obtain domestic objectives, like reducing immigration and protecting the voter base. The UK must abstain from this race to the bottom and develop and maintain a coherent rights agenda in conducting trade policy in this year’s negotiations.
The 2017 General Election witnessed the highest voter turnout in 20 years. Much of this was attributed to 18-24 year-olds, who after registering in Facebook-inspired force, also went to the polling stations on 8 June and ended two decades of disproportionately low turnout among younger voters. While this feat was remarkable, and helped Labour crush the Tories’ pre-election majority, spare a thought for the vast swathes of UK residents who were unable to vote at all.
EU nationals living in the UK form a large and diverse body, numbering around 3 million and having arrived from a wide variety of European countries at different times and for different reasons. Many have lived here for decades. They are also proportionally younger than the UK average and more likely to be in employment. However, despite their significant contributions and deep roots in UK society, none of them are able to vote in general elections.
The fact that they have so much at stake in the election result and the subsequent Brexit negotiations only compounds their sense of helplessness. Take Polish-born Michal, a charity sector worker and former councillor who lives in Watford with his two kids. In almost every way he feels deeply embedded in British society. This is particularly so during the local elections, which he is able to take part in and which he relishes doing so. But come the general election, he is made to feel an outsider.
Must it be this way? While nobody is advocating that immigrants should be handed voting rights upon arrival, surely voting rights should be extended to those like Michal who choose to settle here. At the moment the only way of doing so is through acquiring British citizenship, which is costly, heavily bureaucratic and unattainable for many. There is certainly room to debate the necessary criteria and time frame. Perhaps three years of residence. Perhaps five. However, the current blanket-ban is not the answer.
The UK public seem to agree. A recent poll showed that nearly half of all British citizens support an extension of the voting rights of EU nationals in Britain to include a right to vote in general elections after Brexit. Both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians also back extending this right. Understandably, there is a growing recognition that if we are letting EU residents stay, we should also let them vote.
The UK government however appear unwilling to even guarantee their existing voting rights. The UK’s policy paper published recently, which detailed the offer of “settled status” for EU nationals after Brexit, made no mention of safeguarding their right to vote in local elections.
At a time when EU nationals feel increasingly uneasy about their future in the UK, affirming and expanding their voting rights would go a long way to easing these fears and ensuring that they feel like full and valued members of society once and for all. And at a time when complaints about immigrants not integrating into society are commonplace, such a move would be the best possible way of providing the conditions for full integration and finally rendering these claims obsolete.
Josh Cooper is a Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights
This article was originally written for our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign
Today, as the government begins Brexit negotiations with the European Union, LCHR embarks on a new project, 'Brexit & human rights', a year-long policy and advocacy project which will run from June 2017 to June 2018. Our aim is to influence Brexit and post-Brexit policy in Labour and progressive circles, in order to make it compatible with human rights. You can see more about the project on our dedicated website.
With the assistance of a group of expert advisors, and with input from all the different constituent parts of the Labour movement, LCHR will examine the challenges and opportunities that Brexit poses for human rights in the UK. We will invite submissions from MPs, trade unions, civil society, Labour CLPs and members, and like-minded political parties, and holding high-level workshops focusing on the key issues. We will produce policy analysis and ideas to help inform the Labour Party and other progressive parties on how to ensure human rights are protected during and after Brexit.
The five key issues we are focusing on are:
- Citizens’ rights, such as the residency rights of EU nationals living in the UK.
- The immigration system after Brexit.
- Human rights in post-Brexit trade deals.
- Equality and employment rights.
- Hate crimes and xenophobia.
Those on LCHR's mailing list will get automatic monthly updates on the project within our regular newsletter, but if you'd like to sign up for separate updates you can do so here.