The Referendum on the European Union: Remaining Human

by | Jun 22, 2016

author profile picture

About Colin Harvey

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast.


Colin Harvey ‘The Referendum on the European Union: Remaining Human’ (OxHRH Blog, 22 June 2016) <> [Date of Access]

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is a decision that will be taken in a troubling context. Although occasionally clothed in the inclusive language of globalism, ‘leave’ is part of an agenda of withdrawal, isolation and retreat. The detrimental impact of a ‘leave’ vote is plain – even in this age of post-truth politics. Here I want to focus on three points. All involve the dangers to human rights and human relationships across these islands in the re-emergence of narrow forms of British nationalism in the UK.

First, the failure to differentiate the EU from the Council of Europe is, of course, a recurring problem. Nothing that happens on 23 June 2016 will impact directly on the current role of the European Court of Human Rights (although discussions on the Human Rights Act 1998 may follow). This fact should not lead us to doubt that human rights are still a key target. Not only will leaving the EU mean a potential loss of existing guarantees from that source, but it will hand a depressing political victory to those who do not wish the human rights movement well. Do those critical of the EU from a rights perspective really want to embolden further a narrow nationalism that is, in truth, no friend of human rights?

Second, the human in human rights calls our attention to relationships. It has taken time, negotiation and compromise to bring constitutional relationships between the peoples of these islands to a better place. The seemingly wilful disregard for the decades of work to reach a more stable Northern Ireland hardly augurs well for the level of ‘respect’ that may be on display after a vote to leave. Common membership of the EU has been an underpinning assumption of the peace process. The EU has invested heavily in peace and peace-building. The softening of the border, the acceptance of a multiplicity of identities (British, Irish, EU), the nature of movement around the island of Ireland; these are all things that EU membership has assisted with. The insertion into the constitutional conversation of narrow British nationalist rhetoric is as divisive and unhelpful in Northern Ireland as it surely must be in Scotland. The ‘leave’ project thus puts relationships across these islands at risk. If successful, it will create unproductive levels of constitutional instability; the UK and Ireland would then face each other (for the first time in the long life of the peace process) in a radically new environment.

Third, no one involved in human rights activism can unequivocally endorse any institution. There are many examples of flawed organisations; the EU is only one. A vote to ‘remain’ is not (and must not be) an attempt to preserve an exclusive club for (some) ‘Europeans’; the EU should not be a ‘gated community’. The EU needs to do much more to live out its own foundational values, and it should now be evident that it is not connecting with many people. Across a range of areas much more must be done to demonstrate respect for human rights and human dignity. The place to make these arguments is from within the EU; and that is where states, like the UK, must be part of the solution to shared challenges. Global problems can be tackled more effectively through coordination and focused dialogue. The current global refugee crisis, for example, requires collective international and regional responses not increased fragmentation and unilateralism (in Europe that would lead to an ever more rapid sprint to lower standards).

The technical and legal implications of leaving the EU have been well-aired. For a human rights movement that is under global, regional and local assault a vote to ‘leave’ will offer renewed energy to forces for regression (everywhere), and give them the confidence to take the next steps in their campaign. Human rights guarantees will be on that list. That is one strong reason why a vote to ‘remain’ is a vote for human rights.

Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment