An EU-UK trade deal; What role can it play in protecting rights?

A recent article in the Guardian, highlighted a letter signed by 50 leading human rights lawyers. It raises concerns about the threat of a UK human rights crisis post-Brexit and argues that the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU might be part of the solution. This letter, and today’s triggering of the Brexit process, prompted me to think about the complex relationship between trade and rights, and how the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals might affect that situation (for better and worse). Some initial thoughts below…..

The current UK conservative government has for a long time flirted with abolishing the UK’s Human Rights Act. The letter by human rights supporters raises the concern that, once outside the EU, the UK is also free to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (all EU members must sign up to the ECHR, but once you leave, this isn’t an issue). The letter also raises concerns about the UK “trading away protections against torture for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants.” Hence the crisis.

The signatories to the letter are right that our changing economic relationships with the EU and other nations can potentially have a great affect on rights protection. And their proposed solution tackles some of the problems.

The letter’s signatories call for “the EU to make Britain’s membership of the ECHR a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK.” This is a very important step. It would potentially* lock in the UK’s ECHR commitments and ensure that the UK government cannot unilaterally decide at a later date to abandon the ECHR, a step which “could embolden populist leaders in countries such as Hungary and Poland to abandon domestic and international commitments to human rights.”

Using trade agreements to ensure against a human rights ‘race to the bottom’ across Europe is vital. But should we also be thinking beyond this about a range of other protections that the UK’s future trade deals should engage with? For instance, protection against the UK creating a more ‘competitive’ economy by eroding the rights of workers;  protection for the human rights of vulnerable individuals in countries with troubling human rights records which the UK now wants to create trade agreements with; and protection that ensures the UK’s future trade agreements become building blocks towards better working conditions for workers all over the world, rather than reinforcing existing problems of slavery, forced labour, discrimination, poverty pay etc. in global supply chains.

The current anti-globalization backlash in many western countries has intensified critical engagement with trade agreements and their impacts.  Populist political movements all over the globe are gaining political momentum based on the idea that trade policies (as part of bigger processes of globalisation) are not working for ordinary people. Proponents of EU trade agreements argue that they already take these concerns seriously. EU trade officials point to human rights and labour rights clauses in trade agreements as evidence of their commitment to making sure that trade produces good social outcomes. But are such clauses effective? There is an increasing amount of evidence that suggests current labour rights and human rights provisions in EU trade agreements have had very limited positive effects.

The Post-Brexit EU-UK trade negotiations present a (perhaps tragic) opportunity to revisit this situation and re-think what a rights agenda within trade agreements might achieve. Certainly provisions which ensure that the UK cannot make a unilateral decision to leave the ECHR are of vital importance to human rights supporters in the UK and across Europe. But a more expansive agenda is required if we are to address the wide range of rights issues alluded to above. I am trying to work out what this might look like. More detailed thoughts on these issues from me over the next few months……..

* I say ‘potentially’ because this depends on how the requirements are constructed. Most importantly, the penalties must be sufficiently serious to ensure the commitment is taken seriously.

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