Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Brexit: A Slightly-Less-United Kingdom?

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By Jeremy Hale

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether to ‘Leave’ the EU or ‘Remain’ a member state. John Oliver offers a quick and hilarious primer on the political discussions surrounding lead up to the Brexit vote.  The vote and its accompanying public discourse reflect increasing xenophobia and racism in the UK, and debates about immigration and refugee relocation were central to the rhetoric employed by politicians to instill fear in the public and bolster the “Leave” campaign.

The UK narrowly voted, 52 percent to 48 percent, to separate from the EU – the first time a country would be exiting the EU since its formation in 1993. Did I say that the “UK” narrowly voted to leave? I meant that England and Wales voted to leave, while the London area, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each voted overwhelmingly to remain an EU member state. The sharp divide in voting by region has potentially staggering implications for the future of the possibly-not-so-United Kingdom , especially if the UK follows through on the referendum and exits the EU. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time discussing  a second Scottish Independence Referendum,  and the fate of Northern Ireland and its relations with the Republic of Ireland are now quite uncertain.


One immediate consequence of the Brexit vote was an enormous spike in interest among UK citizens in acquiring Irish passports. Google Trends showed a 100 percent spike in searches for Irish Passports in the hours following the vote.  Irish post offices and embassies were overwhelmed with enquiries and applications for Irish passports.  At the Immigrant Council of Ireland there was a sudden surge of calls from UK citizens asking questions relating to Brexit. Ireland could be a particularly appealing option for UK citizens concerned about losing their EU citizenship, as Ireland is an EU member state, and many UK citizens have an easy entitlement to Irish citizenship as long as they have at least 1 Irish citizen parent or grandparent.  It is possible that a significant number of UK citizens will seek Irish citizenship in order to retain their EU treaty rights.

Another possible consequence for the Emerald Isle is that the relationship between Northern Ireland, which voted strongly to remain in the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, as well as between Northern Ireland and the UK, could get more complicated.  Brexit could spark a renewed fervor among those in Northern Ireland who want to reunify with the Republic of Ireland, and could prompt a greater willingness among those who originally fought to stay in the UK to alternatively stay in the EU.

In 2014, Scotland held an independence referendum that resulted in 55 percent of Scots voting in favor of staying in the UK .  On June 23rd, however, Scots voted overwhelmingly, at 62 percent, to remain in the EU, which raises the question of how many votes from 2014 were as much votes to stay in the EU as to stay part of the UK specifically. Considering how much stronger the majority was to stay in the EU this year than it was to stay in the UK in 2014, it is possible that a second Scottish independence referendum could have a different result.

If the UK exits the EU and Scotland does declare independence, a new international border would be drawn between England and Scotland. Depending on a number of other variables, including whether the newly independent Scotland would become an EU member state itself, and depending on the kind of free movement agreements England negotiates with the EU, the border could either be a fluid one, like that between the EU and Switzerland, or a formal border crossing with passport checks, or somewhere in between. It’s hard to speculate how exactly that will shake out, but a new Scottish independence referendum seems likely according to some reports, even if the outcome is uncertain.

Between Brits seeking Irish citizenship, the possibility of Irish reunification, and the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish Independence, the United Kingdom may become a little less United and Great Britain may soon be Adequate Britain.


Since its proposal, up until just the day before Brexit went up for vote, many people in the UK thought it was absurd and impossible for the UK to actually vote to leave the EU,   and then to the surprise even of some ‘leave’ voters, it happened.

In the process, the UK, at least temporarily, gave a mandate to the worst, most violent, hateful aspects of the culture .  The referendum is already raising fears that more ultra-right-wing groups will take power across Europe and more violence against immigrants will follow. We see the same phenomenon in the U.S. with the rise of Trump as a candidate.

Immigration was one of the major issues leveraged by the ‘Leave’ campaign to convince voters to support Brexit. Not legitimate immigration policy of course, but rather a message of xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating of refugees, particularly from Syria, under the specter of terrorism and of immigrants, particularly from poorer Eastern EU member states, such as Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Romania, flooding in to take British jobs.  This message was spearheaded by UK Independent Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage as well as former London mayor and Britain’s very own pileous disaster, Boris Johnson. Sound familiar, America?

Unless the UK pursues an isolationist policy, the agreement reached with the EU upon separation will probably require some measure of free movement with EU member states if they still want access to the EU single market. So legally and practically, the UK probably won’t be able to prevent immigration of citizens from Eastern EU member states.  If the UK wants to change their policy on accepting refugees, that is already an issue of domestic law and whether they want to remain party to the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.   The Dublin Regulation establishes that asylum seekers in Europe must have their case processed in the first EU member state in which they arrive, so EU member states already handle refugee claims more or less independently, and separating from the EU in and of itself will have little effect on whether refugees attempt to come to the UK.  Ironically, if the UK decides to withdraw from the Dublin Regulation (Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland abide by the Dublin Regulation but are not part of the EU), it could increase the number of asylum seekers in the UK because people who seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, and fail, could then apply separately to the UK – a possibility not available while the UK remains in the EU.

The UK may attempt to negotiate a deal similar to that between the EU and Switzerland or Norway . However, the negotiations will have begun with the UK’s explicit rejection of the EU’s policies and regulations, which might deter the EU from willingly providing the UK with the benefits of access to the EU single market. Nigel Farage, just days after the Brexit result, addressed the EU parliament with an air of condescension and was booed by the MEPs after praising Brexit and insulting his colleagues.  Farage may not be representing the UK in negotiations, but if someone of  his ilk becomes the next British Prime Minister, he may have set the tone.  If so, the UK is unlikely to get anywhere near as good a deal as Norway and Switzerland got at the negotiation table.


The Brexit aftermath may have some silver linings. It may result in a reunified Ireland, an independent Scotland, and a chance for the UK, in whatever form remains, to take a hard look at its own deep seeded issues with racism and xenophobia. But it will be a messy process getting there.

In the meantime, Brits, and citizens of other countries facing groundswells of anti-establishment rhetoric combined dangerously with fear, racism, and xenophobia, need to do more to assure the disenfranchised among us that their underlying concerns – economic hardship, access to education, etc. – are legitimate, but that buying into demagoguery isn’t the only option for disrupting the status quo.

Rather than surrender to irrational fear and hatred and xenophobia, let’s convince our neighbors, and our neighbors’ neighbors, to try being irrationally open-minded and loving. If they’re going to be irrational anyway, better to love too much than hate too much, better to give too much than to fear too much.

Jeremy Hale is  a 2016 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He is interning with the Immigration Council of Ireland.

Photo credit: freestocks.org/Creative Commons

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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