Our Rights Won’t Remain

Contributor Eliška Stroehlein is a second year English Law – French Law student with an interest in international law, queerness, and representation.

[Image Description: twelve yellow women’s symbols arranged in a circle on a navy blue background]

AN: This article was researched and written over several weeks and finalised in the last week of February 2019. Naturally, with the state of UK politics being what it is, there have been many Brexit related developments since that this article does not reflect; thus the author would appreciate if the reader kept this in mind throughout the piece.

“Brexit fatigue” (or perhaps more fittingly, “Brexit exhaustion”), is a term used to describe the apathy toward the UK leaving the European Union that comes as a result of more than two and a half years of inescapable media coverage, televised debates and chats around afterwork pints. This is nothing if not understandable, as the constant discussion leads to the impression that anything properly substantial that has to be said on the matter has been said already.

Yet one vital aspect of Brexit is glaringly missing from the mouths of pundits and politicians, namely the rights of women and minorities in this country that are, for the time being, protected by the EU. As we enter the home stretch of leaving, with 29 March 2019 just weeks away, we must not lose sight of what is at stake.

The European Union’s predecessor’s were originally set up as to promote peace and harmony in the continent through strong economic interdependence rather than taking a purely rights based approach. The idea behind early organisation such as the European Coal and Steel Community was that it would be much harder to go to war with your neighbours when your resources management is centralised.

This idea eventually extended to Human Rights and the Welfare State, the assumption being that a well-fed, healthy and equal society would have no reason to be swayed towards the totalitarian leaders of the 1930s and Europe would remain peaceful. Equally, a a well-fed, healthy and equal society boosts the economy. Take the right to freedom of movement for individuals, Article 45 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union sets out this right squarely in terms of work; one study found that EU workers in the UK have been found to contribute £2300 more to the economy per year than citizens.

This brings us to the European Union’s protection of women’s rights, of which a lot center, given the above, on the workplace. For instance, in the same way somebody could be dismissed for long-term illness, it used to be the case that a woman in this country could be dismissed from her job for becoming pregnant. The comparison with firing a seriously ill man was used to claim that it was not sex discrimination until the EU stepped in with directive Directive 89/391/EEC which, amongst many other rights for pregnant workers, bans dismissal from employment on the grounds of pregnancy.

As it stands, the vast majority of legislation that protects women in the UK is set to be thrown in the shredder when we leave the European Union. As the government scrambles to secure trade deals, there has been little to no mention of replacing the EU’s guarantees of rights with similar national legislation. And even if such legislation is written, it could easily be rolled back by future, unbound parliaments.

While the UK has toyed with the idea of leaving the European Court of Human Rights, there are no plans for this yet, and so we could still count on Strasbourg to hold our government to account on questions of discrimination. That being said, if the prisoners voting rights decision tells us anything, it is that Westminster isn’t always keen to follow the European Court’s judgements.

But there are other, sneakier ways that Brexit could impact rights on these isles. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would mean extra steps for people trying to access the free, safe and legal abortions that the DUP refuse to provide to their citizens. There has been much talk of the toll that further customs checks would take on the supply of drugs manufactured on the continent, not least contraceptives. If people simply cannot get their hands on essential contraceptives and have to come off them at short notice, not only are they being denied bodily autonomy, but serious hormonal upheaval will soon follow, which in turn can have a multitude of psychological and physical consequences.

Finally, forecast after forecast has warned the UK about the grave economic impacts of leaving the EU under any scenario. That, combined with a Tory austerity that seemingly has no end in sight, guarantees a long period of economic violence, the brunt of which will be beared by women and minorities in society. These groups tend to rely more heavily on public services and benefits for a whole series of socio-historical factors, and these services and benefits are the first to feel the effects of government cuts.

In times of heightened austerity, the labour landscape fundamentally shifts, and women are left worse off. The majority of public sector workers are women, so it is more likely that their positions will be axed in the name of clamping down on government spending. The Tories may make cuts to the NHS and the care sector, but there will still be people who need care, and in general it is women who will make up the shortfall in unpaid labour, halting their careers to look after young or elderly family members for lack of other options.

March 29th may be presented as the finish line, but in actual fact it is the starting blocks. In a post-Brexit world, we will have to fight for our rights and for the rights of the person beside us harder than ever. It will take ongoing organisation, further resources and unwavering solidarity. It will take strength.

Works Cited (In Order Used):

  1. Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007), Article 45.
  2. “EU migrant workers contribute £2,300 more per year to UK than average British citizens, study reveals”, by Rob Merrick, The Independent, 18 September 2018.
  3.  “Women’s rights at risk after Brexit”, The Guardian Letters, 28 June 2018.
  4.    Directive 89/391/EEC, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
  5. Council of Europe accepts UK compromise on prisoner voting rights”, Owen Bowcott, The Guardian, 7 December 2017.
  6. “A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for women – this is why”, Jena Norman, The Independent, 30 January 2019.
  7. “ Assessing the economic implications of Brexit”, Oxford Economics.
  8. “The Impact of Austerity on Women in the UK”, Women’s Budget Group.


[Image source: “Brexit and women’s rights – what does it all mean?” by Lee Webster, Womankind worldwide, 28 June 2016]


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