Isolationism could undo our commitment to EU-wide anti-discrimination legislation, from gender equality to equal pay and racial justice.
In the week that the UK government publishes an audit concluding that racial injustice is still a huge problem in Britain, there is a deafening silence on Brexit’s lose-lose meaning for equality and anti-discrimination.
One of the saddest consequences of Britain leaving the EU is that it will bring to an end many years in which the UK has actively advanced EU-wide anti-discrimination legislation.
From gender equality to equal pay, EU racial equality and equal employment directives that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of disability, sexual orientation, religion and age at work, the UK has played its role in improving the protection of large groups of citizens.
And were we staying in the EU, Britain could play a key role in advancing much-needed new legislation on the principle of equal treatment.
This holy grail of EU legal reform would ensure the protection of citizens against discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, disability and age or sexual orientation in employment – and, crucially, in all areas of life that are not yet covered by legislation, for example healthcare, housing or education. At the moment only the ground-breaking race equality directive already covers both employment and all other sectors.
Much EU equality and anti-discrimination legislation remains unknown to those who work outside the field. This is often because the casual Euroscepticism of our discourse over the years has ensured that when the UK government transposed EU legislation to meet EU standards or even gold-plated our anti-discrimination legislation to go further, it was often the case that the EU was not even mentioned. At worst, equality and anti-discrimination laws, and employment laws in general, have been denigrated along with the general denigration of the EU and its institutions as a sign of overregulation or interference.
In fact, many of our social employment protections are now being reassessed and valued, as an increasingly flexible workforce – often under zero-hours contracts – understands the need for good employment protection. Much of this, as many people are now aware, comes from the EU. But the hugely positive contribution of the UK in Brussels on behalf of a wide variety of vulnerable groups has been overlooked back in Britain.
This is particularly dispiriting when we consider that the overall effect of Britain’s input has been to provide good standards of protection for large sections of society, such as older people. These are now mainstream priorities where the effect of improving standards and laws is critical.
Anti-discrimination campaigners meeting at the European parliament this week considered the impact of Brexit on their work. These are people who have tried to improve the rights of LGBT communities or to fight racism, and have done so together across Europe because they understand that the EU is a community of values and not just a single market. They also know their struggles are far from over, with homophobia rising again and racism a day-to-day reality for non-white European citizens.
Brexit’s impact on the EU and equality will have some surprising outcomes. A small one is the number of non-white MEPs – currently only 1.6% of the total number of 751 – and around half are from the UK. After Brexit the European parliament will become even less diverse.
This makes the rise in populism and hate crimes even more alarming. Institutions that protect minorities, such as the Fundamental Rights Agency – as well as the hundreds of community groups, NGOs and equality bodies that dispense vital legal advice – require support.
But the EU losing the UK as a net contributor could damage funding for rights overall. UK organisations working in equality and nondiscrimination are at risk of becoming more isolated and losing the advantages of fruitful dialogue with their European counterparts.
As Brexit approaches, there are serious concerns on two levels: watering down anti-discrimination legislation in the UK; and a possible UK bill of rights that would mean withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, already being advocated by many on the Eurosceptic right.
The equality agenda in the EU has by no means kept at bay the rise in populism and discrimination, Islamophobia and antisemitism, especially in the context of the refugee and migration crisis. However, it has always been critical for the EU to legislate in this area, given the imperative that its citizens should be able to live, work and study in any EU country, free from discrimination.
Everyone understands that the Brexit referendum took place in an atmosphere of anti-immigrant and isolationist rhetoric that has continued to divide the UK. The challenge post-Brexit, even under a principled and committed Labour government, will be to ensure that equality and human rights continue to be treated as priorities.
In the worst-case scenario, we face an isolationist Britain in the field of anti-discrimination and equality, one that becomes regressive because it has less funding for equality bodies. I’m worried that the government will end up betraying generations of vulnerable people.