Can Johnson be trusted on post-Brexit human rights?
Saturday was another victory for British democracy, perhaps even for the universal values of democracy generally. Well, as long as you don’t count Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s shameless behavior in disrespecting Parliament’s decision to ask Brussels for a Brexit extension. As Parliament debated, some friends and I joined a million marchers on Westminster calling for a “People’s Vote” on the future of the UK in the EU. What united all of us was a genuine worry about the country’s future beyond membership of the EU, as it becomes apparent that the UK is currently governed by politicians who have an utter disregard for the democratic values of the country and for how their policies and behavior are affecting people’s human rights. Several days after returning home, I am still digesting what happened as we were slowly edging toward Parliament Square.
In common with previous People’s Vote marches, there was a genuine sense of carnival — one that was not dampened as the sunny blue skies turned overcast and heavy rain poured down just as it was announced that the Letwin amendment had been passed by Parliament, and with it a UK request for another Brexit extension. So, regardless of the weather, there was still a ray of hope not only for Remain supporters, but also for the rule of law. We had come in anxious anticipation of a vote on the new deal that Johnson had struck with Brussels, but we left home with mixed messages — a bit like the weather — still living in hope that the latest deal would be subjected to more scrutiny, especially regarding how people’s rights are going to be protected. But only a no-deal Brexit would be worse than the new agreement reached last week between London and Brussels. This deal is considerably less favorable to the rights and well-being of ordinary Brits than the one agreed by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
In the frenzy of the Brexit process and the wheeling and dealing of the government’s negotiations with Brussels, the Democratic Unionist Party and every single MP who seems unsure of what she or he stands for, it is often forgotten that leaving the EU could have, in fact has already had, a far-reaching impact on millions of people’s human rights. Whether they are EU citizens in the UK or UK citizens living in EU countries, they have so far endured three-and-a-half years of anxious uncertainty about their future; as have those with chronic medical conditions who are concerned about possible shortages of certain drugs. And this is just the beginning of a long haul to guarantee that, even without the protection of EU human rights mechanisms, workers, women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and migrants and asylum seekers are safeguarded. A quick glance at the makeup of the current government does not instill much confidence that this is going to be the case.
For quite some time, many organizations have been warning that Brexit, especially leaving without a deal, could disrupt food and medicine supplies, and the worst affected will inevitably be the poor and those who rely on the welfare system. There is also a growing fear that the civil unrest created by the current political uncertainty might quickly escalate. Johnson’s duplicity in sending an unsigned letter asking for an extension, while in the same breath recommending to the other 27 EU member states not to grant such an extension, is bound to lead to nationwide anger and might result in the UK crashing out of the EU, with devastating implications for the state of human rights in Britain.
This deal is considerably less favorable to the rights and well-being of ordinary Brits than the one agreed by Theresa May
Leaving without a deal will most likely cause rises in food and fuel prices, which will hurt people on low incomes who already have to spend most, if not all, of what they earn on essentials. However, the prices of these and other commodities are likely to rise even with a deal, such as the one reached last week, and, worse, many jobs might be lost, with the lowest paid most likely to be affected.
In the wake of more than a decade of swingeing cuts to social security budgets, low-income and single-parent households are already barely able to cope with rising living costs. Further hikes in food and fuel prices will likely see more people suffering from malnutrition and relying on food banks. And, with winter fast approaching, many of the most vulnerable — babies, children and the elderly — will have inadequately warmed homes and so will suffer further adverse impacts on their health and life expectancy. Johnson, in his desperation that is equaled only by his inexperience, has agreed to a deal that doesn’t protect labor rights — which he cares very little for anyway — and doesn’t safeguard the environment; and so threatens the quality of life of the entire population. In signing new trade agreements, who is going to safeguard the rights of workers or the environment in the face of the multinational corporations and countries that would be quick to exploit for their own profit the UK’s newly found weakness?
Brexit is also putting a severe strain on the rule of law, which is the guarantor of human rights in a democratic system. The government’s recent attempt to prorogue Parliament ended with a slap on the wrist for the prime minister from the Supreme Court for preventing the elected lawmaking body from carrying out its duty of overseeing the executive branch’s activities. The court ruled Johnson’s actions were unlawful and thus halted his audacious attempt to sabotage democracy. However, the more the prime minister and his cronies seek to undermine Parliament, the further they are stepping into the dangerous zone of harming long-enshrined human rights. Without the supremacy of law, rights become redundant, and this sends a message to other would-be autocrats and their supporters that this is acceptable behavior. Between this current situation and a complete breakdown down in law and order, the route is short — too short.
The million marchers on Saturday were admittedly mainly Remainers but, in light of this latest proposed deal, every Briton should share their fear that they cannot trust their current government to uphold the basic rights to which every human being is entitled.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg