While the Brexit vs Bremain debate has been- and will continue to be- argued and analysed to death, one very important issue has escaped mainstream attention: human rights. The EU’s European Court of Justice, its laws and its Charter of Fundamental Rights safeguards our human rights more than the European Court of Human Rights. What’s more, the EU’s justice is much easier to access than that available through the ECHR. A case can only be heard by the ECHR once a case has gone through all the domestic courts- which is usually costly and very time-consuming. However, EU law can be applied directly by even the lowest level domestic courts; so if an EU law would mean you’d win your case at the District Court in Glasgow, then win it you shall, and immediately.
EU law protects Britons from age, race, sex, belief, disability and sexuality discrimination (see overview of EU discrimination law here).
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights further safeguards our rights to privacy, education, being fairly dealt with by the police, and practising our religion/belief amongst many others.
If Britain leaves the EU, we forfeit all of this protection, forever.
The EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that Europeans have a “right to be forgotten”- i.e. that we can request Google to take down information about us. This gives us an important right that nobody else in the world yet enjoys, and could very well open doors to employment for those of us who have been maligned on the internet.
The ECJ is also in the process of deciding whether the UK’s DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act) contravenes EU human rights law. If the UK leaves the EU, in future such cases will have no legal remedy if UK courts uphold the legality of DRIPA-esque legislation, or will have to be referred to the European Court of Human Rights- which is much less likely to safeguard the rights of citizens.
The EU has struck a happy medium on the contentious issue of welfare. Its rules stipulate that after three months’ residency in another EU country, any EU citizen or long-term resident can claim the same welfare benefits as a citizen of that country. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll be handing over your taxes to benefits tourists- the ECJ has recently cracked down on immigrants who exploit the system.
EU law also provides for guaranteed criminal compensation if you are the victim of a crime while travelling within the EU.
The EU’s Europe 2020 strategy aims to “eradicate child poverty, promote the active inclusion in society and the labour market of the most vulnerable groups and overcome discrimination and increase the integration of people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, immigrants and other vulnerable groups.” The EU Commission’s PROGRESS programme supports policy development work relating to employment, working conditions, gender equality, social inclusion and social protection, non-discrimination and diversity. NGOs and charities- including British ones- can apply for funding. The Citizens for Europe programme provides civil society organisations and think tanks at European level with operating grants covering part of their running costs.
Economic security encompasses unemployment and persistent poverty- things which Iain Duncan Smith, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, should have been concerned about. However, he and our current and previous governments caused widespread poverty, an increase in mental health problems and the creation of over 1,000 foodbanks (free food donated by the public for the hungry). The DWP recently announced it will cut benefits for people in work. Clearly economic security is not the UK’s forte.
And what about other security threats? If we’re debating Britain’s security, let’s not leave some concepts of security out of the debate. Take the concept of human security. According to the UN, human security threats include food security (hunger), and political security (political repression, human rights abuses). Although of course we have it very good in the UK compared to a lot of other places, the recent rise of the relevance of economic security, food security and the human rights abuses aspect of political security is hard to ignore.
Recently, in addition to the several suicides and deaths- including of a former soldier who died starving and penniless after missing an appointment at the Job Centre- directly caused by his policies, he was found by researchers to have caused at least 590 suicides which were not previously known. His welfare reforms are currently being investigated by the UN for breaching the human rights of disabled persons. The latest debacle, as of this week, involves a child who has had all four limbs amputated. Under Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms, the boy has been required to prove he is disabled or the family’s benefits will be taken away. Previous examples of disabled people being found “fit to work” and having their disability benefits stopped include a man with peeling bones, a man who is kept alive by a machine, and a kidney dialysis patient who has suffered 14 heart attacks. Thousands of people who were dying have been found fit to work, as have those who were already deceased when the notification was made.
The DWP’s decision to deprive people of enough money to survive (and barely enough to survive in the best scenario- £73 a week to pay bills and buy food with) will adversely impact the economy. Without enough money to buy consumer goods, there is less demand for products and so less jobs. Less jobs mean more people are unemployed and have to depend on benefits, which means the vicious cycle continues. Duncan Smith’s workfare (a mandatory six months of working for free, avoidance of which results in withdrawal of benefits for up to three years) snatches precious jobs away from the waiting jobless. Meanwhile the government shells out millions on corporate welfare (in-work benefits for employees whose employers refuse to pay them enough to survive, such as Housing Benefit and Work Tax Credit).
Brits are now much more likely to die from a benefits sanction than they are to die from a terrorist attack. No terrorist attack in Britain has killed over 590 people. The public’s security is threatened by Iain Duncan Smith more than our security is threatened by terrorists.
Iain Duncan Smith has warned that the UK faces security threats if it doesn’t leave the EU. “This open border does not allow us to check and control people that may come and spend time,” he told the BBC on 20th February. However, a key fact which seems to have escaped Mr Duncan Smith is that the EU is obligated to protect its own borders. If Britain leaves the EU, it’ll be on its own. The UK coastline will become our frontier. Terrorists have to pass through the EU border before they get to Britain, meaning there are at least two and perhaps several (if every EU country they pass through checks them) chances to detect them. If Britain leaves the EU, the terrorists would only have to pass one border- our coast.
But it’s not just border control that membership of the EU has to offer. As Lucy Thomas, deputy director of Britain Stronger In Europe, told the Daily Mail: “In recent weeks we have heard from a wide range of experts with frontline experience of the fight against terrorism that Britain’s streets are safer in Europe.
“Though Iain Duncan Smith may wish to ignore them, the message is clear from the head of Europol, Army chiefs and Home Secretaries past and present, that co-operating with our European allies is crucial to keeping British people safe.
‘The European Arrest Warrant lets us deport terrorist suspects back to their country of origin, Europol helps our police co-operate with their European counterparts, and EU data-sharing measures allow our security services to access information on threats from anywhere in Europe within minutes.”
In fact, Britain benefits from EU intelligence sharing between all member states, and from the intelligence analysis conducted by INTCEN (the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre). Intelligence is also shared through the European Police Organization (Europol), the Joint Situation Center (SitCen), the Intelligence Division of the European Union Military Staff (INTDIVEUMS), and the European Union Satellite Center (EUSC). This is done for counterterrorism purposes.
The Tories’ policies are also having a knock-on effect for national security. If a country is to be a great power, it needs a healthy economy, educated citizens who can compete in the global job marketplace and in a globalised business world, and a strong or at least adequate military. Austerity (and tuition fee rises- which he voted for-, the destruction of higher education grants, cuts in education spending etc) will not achieve that. Children need to have enough food to learn. A hungry child or unhealthy, malnourished teen won’t be as likely to do well in school (especially as lack of nutrition can stunt growth including brain growth). They are also less likely to forgo the instant gratification of work aged 16 for two more years of school and then a four-year university stint, during which they’ll continue to be on the poverty line and dependent on the whims of university hardship funds to pay rent- and then be tens of thousands in debt at the end of it. Bottom line: health comes first. People need to be healthy to get an education. The taxpayer can throw all the money they want to at the NHS but when the problem is malnutrition there’s not much the doctors can do about it. Everything- technology, science, business, even tourism, depend on skilled people running the show and (in some cases) competing with foreign rival institutions. If we don’t have a healthy, educated, able to work populace then all of these industries and more will suffer. The military is self-explanatory; the weak can’t fight. And the same rules apply to military technology as they do to technology generally.
We won’t see these effects for a long time. If Iain Duncan Smith’s policies continue now that he is gone- as it seems they are- Britain will gradually become poorer as a nation. The talented few, born or sponsored into greatness, will leave for a more comfortable existence in more prosperous countries. Universities will slip down the rankings as fewer people apply to them and they take all comers- or perhaps they’ll retain rankings but mostly consist of international students. Without enough educated Brits, the same thing will happen to other professions which we currently see with medical professionals: they’ll consist disproportionately of immigrants because British people don’t have the qualifications. Again, this will take several years if not a few decades.
These changes will affect national security. The security services and the upper echelons of law enforcement and the armed forces need the best, not the best from among the mediocre rich kids who scraped into desperate universities.
Our own government, not the EU, is a threat to the UK’s economic, human and national security. NATO is more of a threat to our sovereignty than the EU, as we are required to go to war if another NATO state is attacked.
Brexit may therefore make the UK more vulnerable to terrorism as we will lack valuable intelligence from the EU. An isolated UK dependent on the US might also be exactly what Putin wants. Brexiters can talk about NATO and the Commonwealth, but it’s, well, talk. At the very least, firm and detailed agreements should be negotiated with Commonwealth States before we leave the EU. They must be specific and binding enough (e.g. they only become void in the event a Brexit is avoided) that those States can’t just back out or water down the agreements. The downside to this is that perhaps States don’t want to waste time negotiating over a situation which might be averted; however there are many Commonwealth nations and if the benefits of trade agreements are made clear, and if the contracts are no more detailed than necessary to secure cooperation, surely a few would be interested. However, though the Commonwealth could- in theory- fulfil the needs of economic security, the relevance of Commonwealth States’ intelligence to terrorist threats against the UK is not clear.
The closest (and most obvious to the British public and the rest of the world) tie remains our ‘special relationship’ with America, which has brought us the joys of unwanted and illegal war, increased terrorism partly as a result of the aforesaid wars, and…er…
As of the time of writing there is absolutely nothing to suggest any concrete steps have been taken to ensure EU-equivalent benefits from the Commonwealth should the Brexit occur. Therefore, assuming that the Commonwealth fails to provide a viable alternative, if the UK leaves the EU it will have to get more cosy with the US to replace all of the lost economic and security benefits. Not only will this be likely to lead to increased resentment of Britain by those who already have a hatred of the west, particularly America, it will also polarise the northern hemisphere- not on a scale approaching anything like the Cold War, of course, but oddly reminiscent: As we know, US-Russia relations and US-China relations are not warm. The UK is a little different as demonstrated with the Chinese President’s visit in 2015, but that may change if the US is the UK’s only ally instead of ‘merely’ the UK’s main and most powerful ally. The UK and US will be on one side, Russia and China on the other.
Relying more heavily on the US is not a good strategic move. One of the basic rules of strategy is to give oneself as many options, as many paths toward one’s goals and as much influence as possible. In the context of the international playground this means forming multiple alliances with States (and non-State actors) who have influence in different regions, provide different economic benefits, and so on. In this way things like a wide sphere of influence and a stable supply of produce are guaranteed, because even if one ally breaks a trade agreement for an essential product, the State is not solely dependent on that ally and so its position will not be much affected. Another example would be if a State used two other States for diplomatic support about intervening in a fourth State. If one ally suddenly decided that no, they weren’t going to try to convince the UN the intervention was necessary, there is still another ally to rely on. (I’m not suggesting this is something any State should be doing, these are simply realistic examples). Throwing most of our eggs in the US basket is bad strategy.
There is also economic security to consider. The Brexit backers appear to believe that if the UK leaves the EU, we will then be able- somehow- to negotiate better deals with the EU. However it is difficult to see why the EU would care about Britain when it’s no longer part of the team. It appears much more likely that the remaining EU states will simply continue to trade with each other within the parameters they voted for long ago. Even if this scheme worked, it’s not so much a Brexit as a Stomping Off In A Huff And Sulking Until They Play My Way. Or, perhaps, a Brexit-And-(re)Brentry.
The EU has been promoting gender equality since 1957. The Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men represents the European Commission’s work program on gender equality for the period 2010-2015. In 2012 the Gender Equality Directive stopped insurers using gender as a risk factor. Currently it combats violence and discrimination. The EU’s Women, Peace and Security agenda works to prevent violence against women and girls in conflict zones. The European Social Fund (ESF) has introduced a gender-mainstreaming approach and the EQUAL initiative was launched in 2000 to develop new ways of tackling discrimination and exclusion in the labour market including that which is based on gender.
The EU has also created an Institute for Gender Equality and a Fundamental Rights Agency. Winnet, a network of European Women Resource Centres was created to improve efficiency and transparency of women’s rights NGOs and therefore improve gender equality policies and tools.
Impact assessments on the effect of EU policy on women are carried out by each of the Commission’s Directorate-Generals.
The ECJ has previously interpreted “family life” to protect the rights of children of unmarried and lone parents to enable the children to remain living with their parents. Cases include Johnston v Ireland (1986), Eur. Ct. H.R., Ser. A, No. 112, Marckx v Belgium (1979) 2 EHRR 330:342, Berehab v Netherlands (App. 10730/84) 21 June 1988 Series A No. 138, (1989) 11 EHRR 322 S21 and Keegan v. Ireland (App.16969/90) 26 May 1994, Series A No. 290 (1994) 18 EHRR 342 S44.
The Fundamental Rights Agency devotes one of the chapters of its Annual Report on Fundamental Rights to the rights of the child. In 2009 the FRA published a report on “Developing indicators for the protection, respect and promotion of the rights of the child in the European Union.”
The Audiovisual Media Services Directive binds Member States to ensure that audiovisual media services provided by media service providers under their jurisdiction do not contain any incitement to hatred or sex discrimination.
The ECJ has ruled on age discrimination in employment, pensions and the retirement age.
When Belgium attempted to deny residence permits for two French nationals on the ground that they were suspected to be engaged in sex work, the ECJ ruled that as Belgium allowed its own citizens to do sex work, denying free movement to French citizens was a contravention of EU law.
More intersectional and specific forms of discrimination haven’t escaped EU notice, either. In 2007, the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) published a study on lone mothers in poverty, which found that the mothers “experienced stigma and prejudice at the workplace and they felt as if they were looked down upon by their co-workers”. The European Working Conditions Observatory concluded that “A respectful environment at work…would also help more lone mothers to enter or return to the labour market.”
The EU’s ECJ court, its Commission, its laws and its many agencies and platforms do much more to safeguard our rights than the European Court. They also pump money into impoverished areas of the UK to improve the lives of Brits in rural and deprived areas. If Britain leaves, there will be nothing to stop the Tories doing whatever they please. We will lose the EU’s European Social Fund funding for services (including internet provision) and projects in deprived communities, and though we won’t have to give funding to the EU, it is not likely we will see a penny of the money saved. A government which is dismantling the NHS and destroying our welfare state is not suddenly going to change and pump the saved resources into welfare, education or health.. The scale and scope of the EU’s human rights protection is unique in the world. If Britain leaves the EU, we must be prepared to give up all of the EU’s human rights protections- for which we will find no replacement.