Retained EU Law Bill: UK’s worrying approach to discarding EU regulation

Yossi Mekelberg

If those behind Brexit meant to disrupt the system, they did a better job than they could have ever imagined, but not for the benefit of the country and, as it emerges, it has not exactly healed the rifts within the Conservative Party either. Nearly seven years have passed since the Brexit referendum and this disastrous unfinished business is still lingering on and negatively affecting almost all aspects of life in the UK. In the midst of one of the deepest political, social and economic crises of the postwar era, even a half-witted government like the present one could have at least slowed down whatever was left of the legacy of EU membership and salvaged whatever was possible. Instead, with the appetite of a gang of accomplished pyromaniacs, Rishi Sunak’s government is torching the last vestiges of EU presence in British lives.
In the latest installment of this obsessive saga of self-destruction, British legislators have now voted in favor of the controversial Retained EU Law Bill, which proposes eliminating all EU-based laws that remain on the statute books by the end of 2023. In the regulatory maze of EU membership, such legislation touches upon all facets of society and it is estimated that this move by the British government means removing an estimated 3,800 items of “retained EU law,” but without allowing enough time for parliament to deliberate on replacement laws with the necessary consideration and thoughtfulness. Instead, the bill, as was voted on, gives ministers the powers to preserve retained EU law or repeal it as they “consider appropriate.”
Since 1990, more than 52,000 laws have been introduced in the UK as a result of EU legislation. This is an enormous body of legislation that transformed the country when it came to trade, agriculture, financial services, human rights, employment, immigration, and environmental laws. To hand the power to ministers to retain or revoke laws as they “consider appropriate,” rather than parliament, relegates democratic parliamentary scrutiny to the very margins of politics. From the outset, Brexiters were led by populists with no plan or strategy and the various shades of their desire to leave the EU ranged from a very primitive nativism and nationalism to riding a wave aimed at serving their own political ambitions, which in Boris Johnson’s case propelled him to his failed stint as prime minister.
Yet, the damage caused by leaving the EU is already evident wherever one looks. Only last week, projections from the Department for International Trade revealed that the value of UK exports will not reach £1 trillion ($1.24 trillion) until 2035 on the basis of the current trajectory, with the total due to fall to £707 billion next year. In 2012, then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised that this figure would be reached in 2020 and Johnson – along with one of his hollow Brexit slogans, “Made in the UK, sold to the world” – stated confidently that it would be achieved by 2030. Brexit might not be the only reason for this decline, but the post-Brexit slump in exports to EU countries has been a major contributor. A plethora of pledges before and after the referendum were not backed up by any in-depth research or data. Despite the bravado of its claims of having reached trade agreements with the rest of the world, allegedly “free from the chains” of Brussels bureaucracy, London has been unable to achieve favorable agreements with major world economies, including the US and India.
Equally worrying is the nonchalant approach to discarding items of EU legislation without a proper process or mechanisms that ensure that the government is not circumventing the elected representatives of the British citizens in parliament. It is not only the opposition parties, led by Labour, that are concerned about plans to “sunset” thousands of laws in less than a year, but also a group of rebel Conservative MPs, even if not necessarily for the same reasons. Some are worried about laws that they approve of being ditched by what they call ministerial diktat, while others are concerned that ministers would actually leave EU legislation they oppose untouched without allowing a debate in parliament. After all, EU legislation affected every aspect of Britain’s social and economic life, setting new and, in most cases, improved standards.
Another area that might be affected is employment rights, including maternity protections, pension rights and holiday entitlements, which were insufficiently protected before the introduction of EU legislation. Before such laws were incorporated, part-time workers were not, for instance, entitled to holiday pay or pension rights. We are already witnessing attempts by the British government to clamp down on the right to take industrial action – a move that could be facilitated by Brexit. The EU adopted a diverse range of treaty provisions and directives to provide important employment protections, safeguard health and safety, and promote equality in the workplace. And even where UK laws were already in place concerning issues such as equal pay, maternity rights, and gender, disability and race discrimination, EU laws forced the UK government to improve its provisions on these issues, including those regarding maximum working hours and the right to paternity leave. Who would guarantee now that these rights will be protected?
And there is the danger that the most important issue of our times, that of climate change, might be affected too. There are about 1,100 environmental laws that require reviewing after Brexit and green groups have expressed their deep concern that regulatory standards may be lowered as a result of leaving the EU and exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis (a crisis that Brexit has clearly played a part in creating). Many of the laws under review are within the purview of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the impact of the direction the post-Brexit UK takes on food standards and the environment, at this crucial time of tackling climate change, could depend on how EU legislation is retained or unfortunately discarded. The UK’s departure from the EU is unlikely to be reconsidered in the foreseeable future, mainly because those who supported it will not admit their mistake and those who opposed it – particularly the Labour Party – are too afraid that reopening the case will compromise their chances of regaining power. What they cannot escape, however, are the consequences of Brexit and the fact that removing the country’s EU-sourced legislation could pose practical challenges for all aspects of British society, including on the constitutional arrangements, good governance and accountability.
The least this government of hard-boiled Brexiteers owes the country is a longer review of each of the thousands of pieces of legislation – through the scrutiny of parliament and with the active involvement of civil society – to ensure that the mess left by Brexit is somewhat mitigated, and through a process that respects democratic traditions.