Much of it depends on what happens with free movement of people within the EU. Hundreds of thousands of British people have got used to being able to take a job in another EU country or retire there without having to worry about visas or health care. We can expect that facility to be lost if free movement ends, which is a possibility. Similarly there’s a question mark over whether EU citizens in Britain will be able to access social security and health care here after Brexit, even if they are entitled to it.
The most obvious impact is likely to be in public services. The NHS and the care industries have relied for a decade or more on recruitment from the EU for everyone from consultants and physiotherapists to nurses and residential care home staff. It has offered flexible strategies for staff recruitment, especially under conditions of austerity. We have always also recruited medical staff from elsewhere in the world, notably from India, the Philippines and South Asia. That recruitment may proportionately increase again, but the key thing is that recruitment of all healthcare staff will be more time-consuming and costly for hospitals, as it will involve paperwork and visa issues, and negotiating with immigration in order to recruit the staff that hospitals and other healthcare providers need.
It’s important to remember that people’s individual employment rights, maternity leave and so on, were not granted by the EU. I recently co-authored a paper which showed that UK maternity and paternity rights are more generous than those required by EU law. On the other hand, the UK has a liberal labour market, with fewer rights for workers than many other EU countries, so the EU regulations have not made a difference there. While there’s no immediate indication that UK social and employment protections will change, if they do then it won’t be because of Brexit. It will be because of our domestic political decisions, just like those we have made during our EU membership.
The EU Social Charter that Tony Blair signed up to in 1997 was very general, with no extreme commitments. It enabled us to maintain our very liberal political economy. This means that the EU Social Charter did not protect workers in the UK from flexible and/or precarious employment or zero hours contracts, for example. I don’t see that changing at all, least of all because of Brexit. There may be some small risk to trade union rights but given that we’ve already seen a pretty strong anti-union bill put forward under Cameron, and passed before the referendum, it’s hard to blame that on Brexit either.
The question of human rights gets some people – and newspapers – really angry. But the Human Rights Act 1998 is nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. It was a national law passed by the Labour government. The Government intends to replace it with a British Bill of Rights, which is a whole debate in its own right – but it’s not a Brexit issue.
The much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights is nothing to do with the EU either. It’s a separate convention which Britain actually helped to draft. We were co-founding signatories, in 1953. Theresa May has indicated that Britain could withdraw from the ECHR. Again, that’s not about Brexit although it is related to a wider anti-European mood and it plays very well with the Brexiters.
So what will Brexit and May’s proposed Great Repeal Bill mean in political reality? That depends on what will replace the specific aspects of EU law that we decide to repeal. We don’t know yet. The government doesn’t know yet. The task is a mammoth one. There’s case law, EU laws that will be transposed into British law, product safety regulations and protections for business and employment… I would be surprised, for instance, if the UK removed protections against dangerous chemicals and carcinogens in the workplace simply because those laws are derived from the EU.
In my area of social policy for instance, we’ve got people in the UK who have lived and worked here for many years. If they leave the UK, under current EU legislation, they can take their social security entitlements with them – as can British citizens who retire abroad, for example. In order to come up with an alternative way of managing this, are we really going to negotiate bilateral agreements with every single EU country, with all of their complicated social security rules? The task of disentangling British and EU law is just staggering. For that reason I suspect that we won’t actually repeal very much of the EU corpus of law – partly because we’re actually fine with most of it, and partly because the alternatives are so unappealing. If nothing else, the resources required are vast.
At the same time there are some areas of the British economy where the Brexit challenges will be very keenly felt, such as agricultural funding or regional development, where obviously EU money has been extremely important. The loss of match funding – where organisations funded by local or central government can apply to have that funding matched by the EU – may cause problems for projects for economic and social development, especially in deprived areas. Universities could also see significant changes unless the Government steps in to ensure that we can keep co-operating with European institutions. The high status of British universities depends very much on that co-operation and on easy access to the best staff and students in Europe.
Finally there’s the widespread misconception that EU regulations automatically prevent the British government from supporting industries in crisis, for instance steel: the ‘illegal state aid’ argument. But in fact other EU countries have often made a case for subsidising industries in difficulty. State subsidies are prohibited if they would distort the EU single market. You can make a case that subsidies are OK or even necessary to maintain the health of the single market.
The reason we don’t subsidise industry is less to do with EU regulations and more to do with our market-driven political culture. If we think of that Brexit slogan of ‘taking back control’, the subsidies question makes a nice example of EU misunderstanding. In this case, we do have control. We made the political choice not to exercise it.