Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What Brexit means for global human rights

If a future Labour government wants to effectively champion human rights with potential trade partners, Britain needs to stay close to the EU, writes Catherine McKinnell

In its bid to establish a ‘global Britain’ outside of the single market and customs union, the government seems to have little interest in anything other than winning future trade deals – setting a worrying precedent for our country’s post-Brexit future.

Engaging with countries around the world has always been vital, but with the prime minister’s sights set firmly on the prize of securing any potential trade partnerships – seemingly regardless of how oppressive a regime may be – it is apparent that our long-held democratic values are now at stake.

The government’s own analysis shows that – under every possible post-Brexit scenario – the United Kingdom’s economy will be worse off as a result of leaving the European Union, in both the short and long-term. Despite the many vague pledges and empty promises, it is simply not possible to agree a deal which delivers ‘the exact same benefits’ we currently enjoy as a result of being members of the EU. And there is not a shred of evidence that any future free trade agreements we may be able to reach will make up for the blindingly obvious disadvantages of leaving the world’s largest trading bloc.





It comes as no major surprise, then, that human rights may not be a priority for Theresa May’s future trade policy. Following her early and totally unnecessary pledge to abandon the single market and the customs union, the government now finds itself with very little room for manoeuvre and has since been preoccupied with trying to make up the clear shortfall this decision will cause. 

Just last year the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was accused of prioritising business over human rights in his pursuit of deals with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Of course, a year is a long time in politics – but there is little evidence to suggest anything has changed since. We saw this when the prime minister was praised by Chinese media for her soft stance on human rights during a visit to China earlier this year, opting instead to focus on trade and investment. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to the UK, despite serious worries about his own human rights violations, only serves to reiterate this concern.

And we are yet to see the outcome of United States president Donald Trump’s visit to the UK in July – but while progressives would love to see the president held to account over such issues as his immigration policy and treatment of refugees, I doubt anyone is holding out much hope. Judging by history, discussions will be strictly limited to trading opportunities – even amid reports of his ambitions to use a UK-US trade deal to hike up costs for our national health service.

Leaving the EU and the customs union, our trade agreements will no longer be handled centrally, and will instead be managed by the department for international trade – which surely has insufficient experience of such complex negotiations to rise to the immense challenge. The public accounts committee made this all the more clear in its recent report that stated the department lacked an ‘adequate understanding’ or ‘a clear plan of top priorities’ when it came to navigating our departure.

This makes a hard Brexit strategy all the more unfathomable. Through the EU, we have relied on a strong institution with a wealth of experience, and as such have promoted a certain standard of human rights – with the imposition of so-called ‘human rights clauses’ in trade agreements. Where a party fails to meet these requirements, disciplinary measures such as trade sanctions can be imposed – and have been in the past, for instance in the case of human rights violations in Iran.

And through trading as part of the EU, a certain level of due diligence is upheld. Agreements with external countries are accompanied by routine impact assessments, which analyse how trade affects human rights in the country in question. Whether the government intends to enshrine similar assessments into their agreements is yet unclear – but one would think not taking this necessary step would have serious implications.

There is obviously a serious risk that these standards will not be maintained going forward and – while the ‘Lexiters’ have argued that Brexit will afford us new opportunities to prioritise human rights in our future trade talks – there is no guarantee this will actually happen. Our new bargaining strength – just 60 million consumers rather than half a billion – also makes it altogether less promising. Either way, considering the evidence, it seems highly unlikely, particularly under the government of today.

But these concerns only scratch the surface – and there are a plethora of other issues to consider, leading to more worries that the government’s strategy will hinder rather than enhance human rights. Our trade policy, for instance, will affect development standards worldwide, with huge ramifications – mainly for the world’s poorest. 

The UK currently imports around £34bn worth of goods from developing countries each year – and around one third of these products entering the country tax-free as a result of EU preferential market access. The government’s commitment to the 48 least developed countries that they will continue to receive duty-free access after Brexit is of course welcomed, but when it comes to the wider set of developing countries, the plan is less clear-cut.

We know that without effective protections, our trade can enforce exploitative working conditions, and have devastating effects – as it did in the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when there were unsafe working conditions in factories that make our clothes. Labour standards provisions are now included as a basic component of EU agreements, so carrying such provisions through into our own agreements and ensuring certain standards are met in the future is imperative, but likely first to go in a negotiation.

Also at risk of falling down the priority list is the fight against corruption – which, if eclipsed by other issues, would have clear implications for human rights. Through the EU, we have developed effective anti-corruption initiatives, and we can no doubt continue to best challenge it as part of a strong institution. In scrabbling around for new trade agreements outside the clout of the single market, we run the risk of striking deals with corrupt governments, which will damage any progress made to date.

Some critics have claimed that greater transparency will be achieved after Brexit outside of the EU – but you only have to look at the government’s eagerness to push future trade deals through without parliamentary scrutiny to see that is not the case. The realpolitik is that trade deals are done in private the world over. 

When it comes to challenging human rights abuses, we are quite clearly in a stronger position to do so as part of a larger trading bloc – and leaving this behind means we run the serious risk of going backwards rather than forwards on this vital issue. Because, despite assertions from ministers that our post-Brexit future will be filled with endless possibilities free of EU rules, the evidence suggests that the reality of this vision, lacking standards and certainty, is far from clear. 

Labour has a long and proud history of championing human rights around the world – but to have the clout to do this when returned to government, we need Britain to remain closely connected to the EU. Dogmatically adhering to hard Brexit rhetoric only weakens our ability to do so. At a time when international security grows only more increasingly fragile, with the number of conflicts rising and human rights across the globe subsequently at risk, compromising Britain’s long-held democratic values as a result of the government’s self-imposed pressure to strike post-Brexit trade deals must be a trade-off too far.

No one is suggesting that the EU is perfect. However, its very presence has improved human rights in its immediate neighbourhood and acts as a counterbalance to Russian interference. If we are serious about our commitment to both defending and advancing human rights across the globe, remaining in the single market and customs union – the world’s largest and most powerful trading bloc with all the social and economic justice leverage this brings – is surely the most desirable outcome when it comes to being able to effectively challenge those who seek to violate them.

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Catherine McKinnell is member of parliament for Newcastle upon Tyne North. She tweets @CatMcKinnell

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Photo: by Yahya Qawasmi, licensed under CC0 (public domain)

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