2018 Human Rights Lecture: The Impact of Brexit on Rights

Back in May, in the midst of the referendum campaign on the 36th Amendment to the Constitution, I attended the Law Society of Ireland where I delivered the 2018 Annual Human Rights Lecture. I had been asked to speak to the topic of ‘The Impact of Brexit on Rights’ and delivered a lecture that looked at this from three angles: protection of rights in the UK generally after exit day, the protection of rights in Northern Ireland in particular, and the future of a ‘Europe of rights’ in a Brexit context. The full text is available on the Law Society website here, but here’s the conclusion:

Brexit [is] an opportunity if not an imperative to re-make the argument for a Europe of rights and to ensure that the European Union operates as such. It can and should inspire us to make once again, and again, the moral argument for European solidarity, and for a post-nationalist solidarity of love and care across our continent. To do that we need to show that a Europe of rights can work, even as, as Ban Ki-moon has said, the world has “reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations”.[1]In this, our European Union, many millions of people live in intense suffering: they cannot school their children in their language and cultural traditions, they cannot express themselves freely without fear of persecution, they cannot walk through life without being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, they cannot access appropriate healthcare including reproductive healthcare, they have no or unsafe homes, they have diminishing security in later life, they experience daily disregard for their dignity especially in sickness and/or old age, and they see around them at all times the deep and deeply rooted inequalities that set the conditions in which European human rights abuses occur.

Remaking the argument for a Europe of rights, thus, requires us both to articulate clearly the moral case for rights, even when their protection may require us to give up some sovereignty or when a rights violation in question seems far from our own experiences. It requires us to see a violation in Ljubljana and Limavady as equally injurious to our humanity; to care as much for our fellow European in Ghent as in Galway; to see our land as much as that of our European co-denizens as of our scattered, intergenerational diaspora.  

It requires us also to press with urgency for a Europe of rights that goes beyond practical and technical solutions to legal challenges and recommits to the true and rich solidarity that underpins the vision of Europe. That may in turn compel us to move on from a Wilsonian idealism that believes democracy and capitalism are the keys to freedom, peace and prosperity. It may require us to question again the ordoliberalism of the Union and its fiscal and economic structures and policies. It may require us to look with more care and more love on our compatriots and enact our esteem for them with more open borders, more supportive socio-economic models, and more welcoming hearts.  

This is not to say that some of the challenges thrown up by Brexit are not amenable to technical and practical solutions; of course they are. The nature and status of retained legislation in the UK is a matter, partly, of technical legal design. The operation of an all-island system of rights and a near-invisible border between the two jurisdictions can be resolved with a set of technical solutions. But even these technical and practical solutions will not work without an underpinning commitment to rights between all of the relevant stakeholders: the member states, the European Union, and the peoples of Europe and of these islands.

Technocracy ultimately fails because it conceits to divorce the technical from the political; when it comes to rights these two cannot be separated. If the reaction to Brexit is merely to seek technical and practical solutions without attending to the root causes and their potential persistence within the European Union then the setting for further ‘_exits’ will remain undisturbed, and the price may well be far greater than any us care to consider.

In Whatever you Say, Say Nothing, from which I have already quoted, Seamus Heaney closes with words that seem apt for the situation we find ourselves in now:

Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,

We hug our little destiny again.

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The new sovereigntism: what it means for human rights law in the UK

Cross-posted from LSE Brexit Blog

For many people, Brexit is about taking back ‘control’; about determining for ‘ourselves’ what the law is, how it applies, how we spend our money, and how we develop our policies. The fact that many people both before the referendum and now struggle to identify with accuracy an area of law or policy in which the EU has ‘taken’ control (and not had competence ceded or shared through a Treaty change ratified by the UK) is irrelevant; what matters is the perception of a lack of national autonomy, and an associated corrosion of domestic democratic control.

Deep within at least parts of the arguments that circulate around Brexit is a form of new sovereigntism that is deeply worrying to the rule of law. The UK is hardly alone in this phenomenon; as far back as 2000 Peter Spiro wrote about the emergence of new sovereigntism in the United States; about a group of scholars and intellectuals who were not opposed to international law per se, but who thought that the US should be able to engage with it as and when it wanted to. In other words, these scholars promoted an a la carte approach to international law, underpinned by a “brand of anti-internationalism [that] runs deep in the American political tradition”. Continue reading The new sovereigntism: what it means for human rights law in the UK

Some reflections on the practical implications of Miller (the Brexit case)

Like many others, I have been thinking about and discussing Miller (R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2016] EWHC 2768) with colleagues today. This is the decision from the High Court that the Government cannot trigger Article 50 in order to begin the process of withdrawal from the EU without getting Parliamentary authorisation first.

Put very shortly (and without wanting to get too far into the details of the reasoning per se), this is because the Court found that, as a constitutional statute and one that created domestic rights and anchored EU rights, the European Communities Act 1972 could not be turned to naught by the Executive. The prerogative power had been constrained by this Act, and it was not within the royal prerogative to make even international treaty decisions (such as withdrawing from the EU) that would disturb this domestic statute. In other words, parliamentary authorisation is required before Article 50 is triggered and the formal process of leaving the EU can begin.

There are already, and will in the coming days, be lots of analyses on the reasoning per se from a constitutional law perspective (see, for example, the reflections of Paul Daly, Kenneth Armstrong and Aileen McHarg). My purpose here is to offer a few reflections more broadly on the implications of the judgment, especially for those more interested in its practical meaning for Brexit than in its (unquestioned) broad constitutional significance per se. Continue reading Some reflections on the practical implications of Miller (the Brexit case)

Brexit: A Personal Reaction

I am still reeling from the result of the UK’s referendum on whether to leave the EU. When the vote came in I was in Mauritius, where I am an examiner for some of the law programmes of the University of Mauritius. There, as here, the result sent a shockwave, with people commiserating with me over breakfast and colleagues in the University wondering why any polity would ‘throw away’ the great benefits of movement, trade, social rights, and liberalism that have come with membership of what is, for them, an aspirational project of regional governance and integration. While I am of course conscious of the failing of the EU, and of the cruelty of its approach to austerity in many member states, I must admit to wondering much the same, including about fellow denizens of my home city of Birmingham who voted (narrowly) to leave.

Of course, the pathway towards actual Brexit following the referendum is complex, involving (likely disputatious) engagement with the devolved governments, almost certainly a parliamentary trigger on Article 50, and then (at least?) two years of negotiations of the agreement to govern the relationship between the UK and the EU into the future. There has already been much coverage in the legal blogs of the whole range of possible scenarios: Colin Murray outlines the possibilities well here, and there is a range of excellent posts on the UK Constitutional Law blog here. I also weighted in (briefly) on the complexity of the Article 50 negotiations here, the key point for me being that there are 28 veto holders on the possible agreement and only one (Ireland) is likely to be predisposed (for self-interested reasons) to hyper-generosity to the UK.

As an Irish person I am particularly worried about the possible implications for the island of Ireland; the likely reemergence of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the impact on Irish trade which is heavily dependent on our economic relationship with the UK, implications for the many many thousands of Irish people who live here in the UK, and the historical and culturally important ease of travel between the two islands (not least for women who need to come to the UK to access abortion).

As a resident of the UK I am worried about the sour and damaging xenophobia and racism that underpin much of the pre- and post-vote narrative of control, sovereignty and ‘Englishness’ in the debate; about the apparently gaping leadership vacuum in much of the country (with the exception of the truly excellent Nicola Sturgeon who, regardless of your views on Scottish Independence, has to be universally acknowledged as leading effectively over this weekend); about the tanking economy and currency; about the seemingly deep divisions that lie across our country–divisions of place, age, education, attainment, and economic status as well as of nation, party and nationality. I wonder–as many of us do–about how we can restore ourselves to a polity of aspiration and internationalism, of togetherness and hope, and of fact and rationality balanced with emotion, affinity and–yes–even nationalism. I am acutely aware of the possibilities that my Irish passport and my wife’s Canadian passport open up for us should we need them; possibilities that so many friends and colleagues will not, now, so easily be able to avail of.

As an academic I am also worried; the excellent Women are Boring gathered short pieces from twelve women academics at different points in our careers to discuss the impact of the vote on us and on our disciplines. The whole piece is really worth reading, and here is my contribution which sums up, in many ways, how I feel about the implications for me of the Brexit vote:

All of my university education was in Ireland. In fact, all of it was in UCC where I studied law for seven very happy years. And so, it was a (not unwelcome) shock to the system when I moved first to a chair in Durham and then to my current post as Professor of Global Legal Studies in the University of Birmingham to discover, be challenged by, and ultimately relish in the intellectually diverse and internationally-oriented world of UK higher education. While international and European law had been important in my education and work in Ireland, the richness that Europeanism brought to the student body, my academic community, and the vision and ambition in legal research of the institutions in which I have worked in the UK was energising, challenging and enthralling. That is the first way in which the EU has impacted my career in the UK. It has been a force for diversification of the people, ideas, institutions and challenges with which I try to pursue the key question in which I am interested: what happens to power, law and politico-legal institutions when crises put them under pressure?

For much of my career I have explored this question in the very particular context or counter-terrorism and security, including leading a major cross-national, inter-disciplinary and empirical project entitled SECILE (Securing Europe through Counter-Terrorism: Impact, legitimacy, and effectiveness). With generous funding from the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme I led a consortium of researchers, NGOs and SMEs in the UK, Ireland, Norway and Latvia in a project that both mapped and analysed EU counter-terrorism and, through interviews with major stakeholders in the EU’s institutions and the member states, tried to understand their real world impact on everyday operations and the experience of living in the European Union. This could not have been achieved without EU membership: that created the opportunity to secure the funding, the relationships that underpinned and made possible our consortium, and the access to high level officials in Europe that helped us both access information and gain traction for our findings.

Trying to understand security and counter-terrorism on a national level alone has value, but misses so much of what happens to shape the national story as a result of transnational dynamics and institutions such as the EU. If Brexit brings us out of these funding structures our ability to ask ‘big questions’ in ‘big contexts’ will be sharply constrained. And what, then, will incentivise the very best researchers who have other possibilities through EU or other citizenship, to remain with the UK’s universities? Will national funding structures, already so stretched, step in to compensate? Will the UK retain sufficient influence in Europe to secure access to these key actors and institutions? Will our colleagues from other EU countries, whose impact on law schools all over this country has been such a key part in diversifying our enquiries and deepening our intellectual ambitions, move on? Will possibilities for staff and student exchange shrink, impoverishing our everyday intellectual environment? And if so, what will be the motivation for people who, like me, have Irish citizenship to stay?

For now many, like me, will be committed to staying and to contributing to the task of thinking our way out of the corner Brexit has placed higher education and legal research in, but one suspects we will also remain deeply aware of the Irish passport that leaves open possibilities for mobility that we may, reluctantly, find ourselves exercising in coming years.