As the UK prepares to trigger Article 50, signalling its departure from the EU, opponents of Brexit worry that that employment rights will be eroded and the UK will become a less welcoming place, particularly for LGBT people.
“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, First we’ll kick the Poles out, Then we’ll get the gays.”
Liberal democrat peer Liz Barker reminded a business summit on LGBT rights last week that the above chant was heard in London the day after the EU referendum in June 2016, and that in the three months following there was a 147% increase in reported homophobic crimes.
“Among the very many half-truths bandied about during the [referendum] campaign, the idea that the EU played very little or no parts in gaining rights in this country was most egregious,” she told The Economist’s Pride and Prejudice event, held in London, Hong Kong and New York on 23 March.
“Most of the advances that we have made towards equality are absolutely traceable back to the EU and its institutions,” she said.
“We are entrepreneurial and maintain good relationships around the world. Having walked out, we really have damaged our relationships with other countries.”
Not so, argued John Mills, the entrepreneur and Labour party donor who campaigned to leave the EU. He told Barker that Britain was well ahead of other European countries in relation to employment law and equality legislation.
“There are about six different categories of social and employment legislation and about five originated in this country. Just one – paternity leave – originated in the EU,” he claimed.
Both are right. UK maternity leave, for example, was first introduced in the UK, but its extension to up to a year (albeit without pay after the first six months), came from Europe.
UK anti-discrimination laws related to sex, race and disability pre-dated the EU in this country. But case law from Europe has considerably extended even pre-EU anti-discrimination legislation in the UK. Age, religion and belief and sexual orientation protection was introduced because of EU Directives.
Perhaps the question is how comfortable will EU nationals feel about living in a country which may feel very different to their own, assuming those already living here are allowed to stay, which currently is far from certain?
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that Brexit would mean a “low-tax, deregulated race to the bottom”, with workers’ rights and environmental protections threatened. (She is calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence in a bid to keep Scotland in the EU).
Some fear that the UK will model itself on Singapore, the city state which champions “lite touch” regulation on financial services and employment and where, interestingly, male same-sex sexual activity is illegal, and where there are no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT communities.
Currently 28% of the academic workforce at universities is non-British. Of that figure, come from European Union (EU) countries, including 5,000 Spanish scientists working in universities, industry, and research institutions.
A survey released on 27 March by the Society for Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK) says 43% of its members would leave the UK if no certainty and security is urgently offered to EU nationals already in the UK. Of that figure, over 30% would move back to Spain, 60% would move to another EU Member State and 10% would go outside Europe, according to the poll.
Given the relentless focus on Brexit since the June 2016 referendum, it’s worth remembering that five countries have pending applications to join the EU – these candidate countries are Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania.
Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner responsible for neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations, describes the EU as an exporter of political stability.
He told the Pride and Prejudice event: “Countries can only align with the EU if they align with our understanding of an open and transparent society. This is good for an investor-friendly climate that is conducive to attracting foreign investors.”
Hahn also said Europeans lacked “self-confidence” about the EU’s achievements in terms of tackling discrimination, extending employment rights, and introducing same sex marriage. Non-EU countries often appreciated this more.
And he said talks with countries wanting to join begin and end with chapters 23 and 24 of the aquis (the EU’s handbook for membership). These focus on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and on justice, freedom and security.
Talks with political leaders in Serbia’s capital Belgrade, for example, had delivered some progress. “We are not yet where we would like to be,” he added.
Ivan Scalfarotto, the Italian international trade minister first visited London as a child in 1975, and has visited every year. In 2002 her moved to the UK, working in HR. He told the event: “I love this place. And I’m sorry to see it going. It helped me as a gay man. A lot of LGBT people saw London as a place that would include you.”
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.