The Human Rights implications of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit

After months of Brexit negotiations defined by incremental progress and deteriorating relationships, the high levels of panic can be judged by the fact that Theresa May’s repeated insistence that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is increasingly being discussed as a viable option. The government is characteristically split on this issue, with chief Brexit negotiator David Davis seeing it as a key negotiating lever. Yet Home Secretary Amber Rudd labelled such a scenario “unthinkable”, whilst Chancellor Phillip Hammond has earnt the ire of the Daily Mail for his apparent lack of confidence in post-Brexit Britain.

The danger is that this disarray will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the government’s inability to move negotiations forward is eating into the precious and limited time available to reach the best possible agreement. Jens Geier, the German Vice Chair of the European Parliament’s budget committee, recently described how the government’s disarray is preventing any ‘sustainable progress’, and argued that a no deal scenario is in fact preferable to a bad deal – for the EU. As the Brexit cliff edge is now emerging as an unwelcome speck on the horizon, it is important to consider what it would mean for our human rights if we plunged down it.

The prospect of no deal has added another unwelcome notch of strain to the worries of those whose citizens’ rights remain unclear. Following her government’s year-long refusal to guarantee the exact continuation of the existing rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, the Prime Minister confirmed that some of their rights “would fall away if there was no deal.” These include the right to move around the EU to work and the right to settle with family members who are based abroad. Amber Rudd sought to clarify the government’s stance by stating that the Home Office’s ‘default position’ will be to accept residency applications. But this is not the same as a guarantee of rights, and as Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott rightly asked in a recent intervention on behalf of EU citizens, “who in the cabinet can be trusted to uphold these rights in the absence of a deal?”

This eventuality would also destroy any hope for a beneficial reciprocal deal for the 1.2 million UK citizens living in EU countries, who would be left stranded under the varying jurisdictions of their respective host countries. As the existing EU directive for third party nationals confers comparatively few rights, especially for those without five years residence, a no deal scenario would likely scythe through the current freedoms of Britons living across Europe.

Whilst much of our ability to preserve our European-derived employment and equality protections will hinge on the passage of ‘The Great Repeal Bill’ a no deal scenario would strengthen the hand of those seeking to undo crucial rights. In the event of an acrimonious and incomplete settlement, it is extremely likely that anti-European sentiment would increase in political currency. A recent study by The UK in a Changing Europe warned of “a bitter and divisive period” in the event of a no deal, which could provide fertile ground for those hoping that Brexit ignites a race to the bottom amid the ‘legal chaos’ as all pre-existing legal arrangements simultaneously evaporate.

It is also likely that a no-deal political climate would lead to the extension of the most regressive aspects of our non-EU immigration system, particularly the spousal income requirement, which prevents thousands from exercising their right to a family life. A no deal scenario would also reduce the onus upon UK courts to keep up to date with European rulings, which would raise the undesirable prospect of the UK lagging behind human rights progress made on the continent.

Much of the focus on a Brexit ‘cliff edge’ has rightly concentrated on the economic ramifications, with a recent Resolution Foundation study finding that low and mid income families would be hit the hardest. Yet a situation in which Britain crashes out of the EU and embraces the guidelines of the World Trade Organisation would raise significant human rights concerns. An increased reliance on partners such as Saudi Arabia will run the risk of undermining human rights and labour standards, and will make it considerably harder to implement a rights-based foreign policy.

Labour has been unequivocal in its condemnation of this Tory delusion, with Dianne Abbott’s welcome intervention one of many. Labour’s victory in delaying the vote on the Great Repeal Bill shows how strong a voice it can be in favour of a sensible Brexit. Labour will need to shout as often and as loudly as possible if we are to avoid the near-dystopian vision of a no deal Brexit.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

This article was first published as part of our Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.