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HELENA KENNEDY: Leaving EU legal protections will hit women hardest

The towers of the European Court of Justice are pictured in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, 26 January 2012. Photo: Thomas Frey - Credit: DPA/PA Images

Leading barrister and peer Helena Kennedy on how departure from the EU has made us all vulnerable – but especially women.

Iam not a New Feminist. I’m an old one. But I would hazard a guess most young feminists who could vote, and did so, voted to remain in the EU. Nevertheless, many women voted to leave and I suspect they never knew about the specific ways the EU impacted positively on women’s lives. Because there is no doubt the EU has been very good for women. And my big regret is that we did not shout this message loudly enough prior to the 2016 referendum

For me the EU has always been a project that is about more than the economic benefits of being in a trading bloc. It has been about collaboration across the nations of Europe to secure peace and justice, to evolve shared values and ideals. It is about creating decent, caring societies across the whole continent, where everyone enjoys a good standard of living and no one is left behind. It means working together effectively on issues that defy national borders: international crime, terrorism, the degradation of the environment, global warming, consumer rights, the internet, trafficking, multinational corporations, tax avoidance.

Of course, it makes absolute sense to create close arrangements with your nearest neighbours to facilitate the buying and selling of produce and other goods. We created a similar close trading relationship with Ireland after southern Ireland became independent in 1922. We also made special travel arrangements with Ireland called the Common Travel Area, so that people could cross freely to and fro between these islands without passports because of our close proximity and shared history.

That arrangement brought Irish people to work, in the initial stages often to do low paid like hotel work, cleaning, nursing and work on building sites, but which were vital to our economy and public services. And the Irish went through their experience of being marginalised and blamed for unemployment or other woes. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were met with signs outside rooming houses that said: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs!’ Blaming immigration for social ills is not new.

What people who voted to leave Europe distrusted was not the idea of trading, it was the other stuff they took against: the rules that came out of Europe, the regulations, the law and the existence of a court that is not our own, telling us what to do and what is right. Who are they to tell us? The social chapter was a particular source of horror to free market fundamentalists who see regulations around workers rights and the quality of goods as burdens to entrepreneurs and business. But the social chapter is what injects a sense of morality into free markets. Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, did not just write The Wealth of Nations; he also wrote Moral Sentiments, and in fact decent businesses treat workers well and know that quality commodities are at the heart of their success. The big bogey of the social chapter as we’ve been (mis)sold it is that we lack parliamentary sovereignty. We have, we are told, to conform to EU law. Our courts, they say, have been made subservient to the European Court of Justice and to the European Court of Human Rights. But despite the tabloids presenting a picture of the UK as a mere passive recipient of law from Europe, we have been very active creators of it.

The two main courts of Europe are very distinct courts. The European Court of Human Rights exists quite independently of our membership of the EU. It was established as part of our international commitment to human rights after the Second World War, along with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European Court of Justice is a quite different court. If you want to trade with another nation, what happens if you have disputes? You cannot just say they should be tried by British courts. Your trading partner would never agree. International trade deals always have to have a court or quasi-court named to deal with disputes. The World Trade Organisation, which seems to have appeal for many people who voted to leave, also has its own ‘court’ to resolve conflicts between parties to a deal.

The ECJ does that for European trading. Its remit is wider than trade because it serves wider ideals. It covers the conditions of employment and other collaborations that exist within the EU to make the region compatible not only with good trading relations but also with the maintenance of peace and security, which underpin those good relations. And this is a good thing, for citizens and for businesses: the conditions in which women live affects how they function as workers and consumers in a trading bloc.

In a globalised world there is no escaping foreign courts. Our world has shrunk and over the last four decades. Men and women from different European nations meet, fall in love, marry and have children. If there are subsequent disputes over child access or non-payment of maintenance, EU regulations mean there is no need to go through the costly process of instructing lawyers in Poland or Rome to settle the matter; it can be done through well-oiled Brussels regulations which work on the basis of reciprocity.

It means that if, say, the father takes off back to his own country and is not contributing to the upkeep of his children, a mother can go to her local court in the UK and get an order. The local court in Spain, or wherever the father lives, will be contacted and the order will be made effective there. It works because the reverse is also true. This judicial collaboration relies upon mutual recognition and close, well-developed systems based on Brussels Regulations.

Equally, if a parent is not getting access or seizes a child, these regulations work effectively and far more efficiently than any of the international Hague Convention protocols, which exist for disputes that take place between UK nationals and ex partners in non EU countries. Try getting a child back from America if he or she is abducted by a spouse. It is a costly and protracted business.

Where there is a history of domestic violence, European Protection Orders exist for the protection of women across borders: if a woman is being pursued by a violent partner she can phone the police in any country and have her pursuer arrested. This protection order works against stalkers and traffickers and is specifically designed to safeguard women and girls. It is also useful in the prevention of forced marriages. It is overseen by the European Court of Justice.

Much of my own work now relates to trafficking of women. The Eurowarrant is vitally important as a tool in bringing to justice traffickers of women and children (for sexual purposes, for exploitative labour or domestic servitude) by enabling their arrest and speedy extradition across borders. Eurojust is an agency which brings together prosecutorial and court services to work collaboratively to decide where is best to prosecute those committing cross-border crime. And, again, the Eurowarrant and the Europol and Eurojust agencies rely upon the oversight of an international court – the European Court of Justice. None of these collaborative processes work without there being at the apex a court which is not seen as belonging to one side.

But it’s not just about having a neutral arbitration court: it’s also about money. Women and men have benefitted hugely from membership of the European Union and now our universities, our hospitals and hotels, our agri-business, we ourselves as citizens are going to suffer devastating shortages because of this self-inflicted wound. The lie sold to the public, that £350 million per week would find its way into the NHS if we voted leave, was very seductive to women. They should be told very loudly that it was indeed a lie.

Many of the UK women’s organisations which are struggling to survive in the current climate of austerity cuts have managed to continue their vital work because of EU grants. Outsourcing of services by local authorities, which are starved of resources by central government, has greatly undermined the work of women’s refuges. Women’s Aid has to turn away 155 vulnerable women and their children every day. But for the EU, even more women would be suffering from the blight that is violence against women.

Thousands of girls living in Europe are subjected to the inhumane process of female genital mutilation – FGM. Again, the EU has allocated several million euros to projects specifically aimed at combatting this appalling practice and many small community projects in the UK are supported by those funds. We are set to lose all of this under Brexit. We simply can’t afford it.

Helena Kennedy QC is a Labour peer

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