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Yahoo exclusive: EU warns human rights fears could threaten Brexit free trade deal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Theresa May with Donald Tusk earlier this month, when he warned the UK can’t expect frictionless trade outside the single market trading bloc. (Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images)

Brexit is likely to bring about a “significant regression” in human rights safeguards in the UK, the European Parliament has been warned.

A report for MEPs seen by Yahoo Finance UK says the Government’s controversial plan to ditch the Charter of Fundamental Rights when the UK leaves the EU will “shrink” legal protections.

The disparity created between UK and EU standards in this area would represent a substantive non-tariff barrier to trade and make security cooperation more difficult, its authors warn.

That could have serious consequences for the scope of a future free trade agreement, which EU Council President Donald Tusk said today is now the “only remaining possible option” for a post-Brexit partnership.

The legal opinion commissioned by the European Parliament’s United Left group will be launched in London tomorrow by Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson.

Speaking ahead of the event at Westminster, she said: “There is no doubt that Brexit will have a detrimental impact on human rights and in fact this report describes that impact as unprecedented.

“It is also clear, just as we have been since the referendum, that there must be no diminution of rights as a result of Brexit.”

The report comes amid a campaign to overturn the Government’s plan to remove the Charter of Fundamental Rights from UK law as part of its EU Withdrawal Bill.

The report was commissioned by the European Parliament’s GUE/NGL group (Getty Images)

The Government insists the measure “will not affect the substantive rights from which individuals already benefit”

They say many of the rights included in the Charter already exist in UK law or are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which the UK will continue to be part of after Brexit.

The new report, which was commissioned from Doughty Street Chambers – the law firm headed by top human rights QC Geoffrey Robertson – says the prospect is “profoundly concerning.”

It highlights a number of freedoms in the Charter which will not continue to be protected and other areas of UK law which are “significantly weaker” than the Charter. They include:

  • The right not to be discriminated against based on gender, sexuality or disability
  • The rights of children
  • The right to legal aid
  • The right to the protection of personal data
  • The right to health, environmental protection and social security

The report authors also point out that the Conservative’s general election manifesto included a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act and remain signatories of the ECHR only for the duration of the current Parliament.

“The process of Brexit will involve a fundamental shift in the UK’s constitutional arrangements for the protection of human rights,” they conclude.

“For most individuals living in the UK, including UK citizens and EU citizens, this is likely to involve a significant regression in respect of the protection of individual and fundamental human rights.”

As well as having consequences for individuals, the Government’s own plans for the UK’s future relationship with the EU could be affected, according to the legal opinion.

Public opinion of the state of the Brexit negotiations is dipping (PA)

It states: “A disparity in the degree of protection offered to fundamental human rights might operate as a substantive barrier to free trade.”

It also warns any future move away from the ECHR would create “significant barriers to cooperation on policing, criminal justice and security.”

Specifically, it highlights “tension” between the UK and EU over data retention as a possible road block to Theresa May’s ambitions to maintain security cooperation.

The report suggests that MEPs may want to push for a human rights clause to be included in any trade deal with the UK that would bind this and future Governments to certain standards.

Without that, the UK would be left with a “two tier” approach to rights because of the Government’s commitment that Northern Ireland residents with dual citizenship will continue to have all the rights of EU citizenship – including those under the Charter of Fundamental rights.


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The report warns: “Differential protection of human rights as between citizens of Ireland and the UK, and/or between citizens of Northern Ireland and the remainder of the UK, is likely to stir up enmities in relation to identity and lack of equivalence.”

However, questions still remain about how dual citizens would exercise their rights to vote and stand in European Parliament elections.

If they were not able to do so, that would breach the Good Friday Agreement as well as the commitments made by the Government in its joint report on Brexit negotiations with the EU.

This could lead to the unprecedented step of a non-EU territory being represented in the European Parliament.

But the report warns any weakening of rights for dual citizens would “not only endanger peace and stability” but also “undermine the UK’s credibility as a diplomatic partner.”

Anderson added: “I welcome the recommendation of this independent legal opinion that a solution must be found which recognises the special circumstances of the north of Ireland.

“We cannot allow our rights, including the rights contained in the Good Friday Agreement to be undermined by Brexit.

“Our rights need to be protected, under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”