A strange irony: How the EU withdrawal process ended up saving the Human Rights Act

Dr Frederick Cowell, Lecturer in Law, argues that the UK’s exiting the EU may have saved the Human Rights Act and secured Britain’s long term future as party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Brexit process has in short pushed the UK government away from what was until recently a clearly stated policy – to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), replace it with a British Bill of Rights and eventually withdraw from the ECHR. Both a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and HRA repeal, were in the Conservative Manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Repeal of the HRA, which brings the ECHR into UK law and requires UK judges to take the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights into account, has been a stated aim of the Conservative Party since 2006. In fact its position on the HRA was clearer in its 2010 manifesto than its commitment to EU withdrawal. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the creation of the Commission on a British Bill of Rights appeared to kill the idea but in 2014 the Conservative Party Published its proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the HRA.

Entitled Protecting Human Rights in the UK it proposed breaking the link between UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights and withdrawing from the ECHR if that was not possible. If implemented this would have left the UK the only nation in continental Europe (apart from Belarus) that was outside the ECHR. It would likely have been incompatible with the Treaty on the European Union, which commits EU member states to respecting human rights, as defined by the ECHR, as a core EU value. However, as the 2014 policy document went onto note ‘our relationship with the EU will be renegotiated in the next parliament’ and if there were any problems with the UK’s new bespoke human rights agreement this would be addressed ‘as part of the renegotiation.’ Linking leaving the EU with ECHR withdrawal made sense in terms of political framing. Although being outside the EU has no bearing on ECHR membership – Norway and Switzerland are not EU member states but have been party to the ECHR for almost half a century – the European Court of Human Rights was considered another ‘foreign court’ in the newspapers and political circles that would go onto become the most enthusiastic Brexit supporters.

There is no evidence that renegotiating EU values so as to allow the UK to withdraw from the ECHR but remain in the EU, was ever seriously discussed during David Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of EU membership in late 2015. Given that both the EU Justice Commissioner and the President of the European Commission had indicated a few years earlier that any member state attempting to withdraw from the ECHR would raise concerns ‘as regards the effective protection of fundamental rights’, it is highly unlikely that Cameron would have been successful even if he had tried. After winning the 2015 General Election the entire project appeared to slow down; the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove promised proposals on a British Bill of Rights to repeal the HRA within months, but by the end of 2015 nothing had been published. By then academics and legal commentators had started to highlight the constitutional difficulties of HRA repeal, especially in relation to devolution, but the government continued to signal they were fully committed to HRA repeal.

In June 2016 when Theresa May became Prime Minister she was expected to continue with the policy – she was a long-time opponent of the HRA from her days asHome Secretary, when she infamously and incorrectly claimed that HRA had blocked her from deporting someone because of their pet cat. But in December 2016 the Attorney-General Jeremy Wright announced that HRA repeal was delayed until after the conclusion of Brexit. In the 2017 Conservative General Election Manifesto HRA repeal and ECHR withdrawal was effectively cancelled for the duration of the next parliament. This was far from popular among the Conservative Brexit supporters but the numbers in the 2015-2017 parliament made repeal difficult (a problem which worsened after the 2017 election). Also with all of the constitutional difficulties over Brexit there was little appetite to create an additional set of constitutional problems.

Since the autumn of 2017 the European Parliament has been clear that an important component of a future EU-UK relationship would be the UK’s continued ECHR membership. In the summer of 2018 the European commission draft report on future security cooperation again made membership of the ECHR an essential condition. Theorists of international relations and international law have argued that one the core reasons for states joining the ECHR was to create a form of democratic lock-in where the rights contained in it and the frameworks designed to protect them would be locked in place, in part because it would be hard for states to leave the Convention. Although it is superficially easy for a country to leave the ECHR, an exit mechanism is contained in Article 58 of the Convention and there no direct economic consequences to a state for doing so, the ECHR’s interconnection with other European institutions creates a layer of political restraints constraining exit. The prospect of an exit agreement was clearly used as a lever by the European Parliament in their March 2018 resolution, which required any future trade agreement to be in “strict accordance” with EU values, effectively keeping the UK in the ECHR.

This could be important for securing the HRA’s future because there remains a significant political appetite for its repeal. Human Rights campaigners in the UK are often reassured by polling showing that HRA repeal is not a high public priority. But polling taken over a number of years in response to controversial or high profile decisions from the European Court of Human Rights has identified a significant degree of sympathy for the arguments advanced by the ECHR’s critics. Many of the arguments ranged against both the EU and the ECHR deploy what Fiona de Londras calls the ‘new sovereigntism’ argument – the idea that states should only engage and comply with international courts as and when they want to. Dominic Cummings, the leading political strategist for the Vote Leave campaign, announced earlier this year that he wants a referendum on the ECHR, noting that many leave voters would be ‘mad’ when they realise the UK was still party to it. Given this context the external economic and political forces locking the UK into being a party to the ECHR as part of the Brexit process have probably secured the HRA’s future – for now.

This piece was first published on LSE’s blog

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Cool views of molecular machines

Carolyn Moores, Professor of Structural Biology, writes about how academics in the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) are using their new cryo-electron microscope to address big questions about antibiotic resistance, disease and life itself.

The state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscope at Birkbeck

Tucked discreetly in a corner of the Malet Street Extension building, a new state-of-the-art microscope is generating Terabytes of high-resolution imaging data. This £4M cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM) is using Nobel Prize-winning technology to address a wide range of biologically and biomedically important questions. Researchers in the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) are using it to study the molecular machines that are found within all living cells and that are essential for life. The ISMB – a joint research institute between Birkbeck and UCL – is internationally recognised as a centre of excellence for cryo-EM and for our research focused on diverse molecular machines.

In 2016, we were thrilled to be awarded a grant by Wellcome which, together with contributions from Birkbeck and UCL, funded the purchase of our Titan Krios microscope. Delivery day, earlier this year, was a big moment for the whole team. Prior to its arrival, we had been working hard with colleagues from Estates and external contractors to prepare a high-spec room for its arrival. Our microscope travelled in its own juggernaut from the Thermo Fisher factory in The Netherlands, with its ~3,300 parts carefully catalogued and packed in 21 crates. With nerves jangling, we all held our breath as the largest and heaviest part of the microscope was squeezed into the lift, travelled one floor to the basement without mishap, and edged its way out again. Constructed by dedicated engineers over the course of 8 weeks like a very big ship in a bottle, this 4.5 tonne, 4m tall monolith is now steadily producing up to 4TB of data a day.

Christmas came early – delivery of the cyro-electron microscope

Since its invention in the 1930s, electron microscopy has steadily improved in power and sophistication, and recent advances have moved this method to the forefront of structural biology. In particular, rapid freezing of samples to liquid nitrogen temperatures (~-195°C) allows sample preservation to be maintained inside the microscope, and provides some cryo-protection from the otherwise damaging effects of the electrons that are used for sample imaging. The cryo-EM field has undergone a technological revolution in the last ~5 years such that the application of this methodology has expanded enormously. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three pioneers in the field.

Our new microscope brings many benefits. First, it is very stable: since the ultimate goal of our experiments is to visualize the position and organization of all the atoms from which molecular machinery is built, microscope stability is vital. Coupled to this, the Titan Krios is designed to allow automated data collection such that, after a few hours of set up, data collection experiments can be left to run for several days without user intervention. Previous generation equipment required trained microscopists to sit at the microscope for as many hours as they could manage. Since our structural experiments require many thousands of sample images to be computationally combined to reveal their 3D structure, this is gruelling. Implementation of sophisticated data collection software is much more efficient and strongly preferred by the microscopists! In addition, although still requiring expertise and training, the Titan Krios is user-friendly while not compromising on its high-end capabilities. Around a dozen ISMB researchers have already received training and are busy collecting data for studies on topics as diverse as cancer, dementia, antibiotic resistance and malaria. Understanding the structures of biological molecules and assemblies reveals how they work and makes it possible to design drugs or treatments for diseases.

Installation in Birkbeck’s Malet Street building

With new opportunities come fresh challenges. Because the new microscope produces high-quality data – and a lot of it – so efficiently, our focus has now shifted to the problem of producing high-quality samples that can be fed into the Titan Krios imaging pipeline. This now represents a major bottleneck for many projects, both because of the time intrinsic to sample optimisation and because researchers need to learn the skills in order to undertake this optimisation. We are now focusing on ways to allow more projects and more researchers at UCL and Birkbeck to benefit from the cryo-EM “resolution revolution”.

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The food politics of Brexit

Dr Alex Colás and Dr Jason Edwards discuss the crucial place of food and drink in the Brexit negotiations, and how they could impact domestic and international politics. They are authors with Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press), which will be launched at a reception on 13 December. Find out more and book your free place here.

Whatever the outcome of ongoing Brexit negotiations, one conclusion is abundantly clear: food and drink are critical to this process, and more widely to both domestic and international politics. This is most obvious in relation to the UK’s food security. With just over 30 per cent in value terms of Britain’s just-in-time food supply coming from within the European Union, the UK’S food security is likely to be compromised. A recent authoritative report warns that Britain’s nutritional and political stability could be undermined by price volatility, sharpening inequalities and erosion of public trust following Brexit. Far from being an anecdotal sideshow, the effects of the divorce on Britain’s food economy are starting to become apparent in both the agricultural and hospitality sectors, so dependent on EU labor.

The consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU go beyond the high politics of summitry, increasingly appearing in the everyday lives of UK residents, touching on issues like national and regional identities, public health, fisheries and agriculture, commodity supply chains, fast food workers, food standards and changing consumer tastes. Products like Stilton, Arbroath Smokies or indeed Scotch whisky, all currently listed by the EU as having Protected Designation of Origin or Geographical Indication, are expected to retain this status only if there is a UK alignment with European regulations, and will otherwise have to apply as a ‘third country’ producers. The great British institution of the Friday night curry is also affected by Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign, leading Brexiteers secured the support of the Bangladesh Caterers Association – a major organisation representing the sector – with the promise that leaving the EU and ‘taking back control’ of immigration would ‘save our curry houses’. Two years on, representatives of this emblematic sector of the country’s catering industry say they are disappointed that the final Brexit deal is likely to offer EU citizens preferential access to the UK labour market. News headlines have equally highlighted the public health and food safety dimensions of Brexit as farmers and consumers worry about the prospect of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef or genetically-modified organisms entering the UK food chain through trade deals with countries outside the EU.

All of these concerns have an extensive history in British and continental politics. In our new book Food, Politics, and Society we take the long view and argue that in fact questions of food prices and international trade; cuisine and identity; state regulation of food and drink; or the public health and environmental consequences of different food regimes have been central to the development of western social theory since the eighteenth century.

Classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and their eminent critic Karl Marx should to different degrees be seen as theorists of food politics. Food is key to Smith and Ricardo’s famous accounts of rent and comparative advantage, while the importance for Marx’s work of the agro-ecological concept of ‘metabolism’ has recently been expertly recovered by Marxian scholars. Closer to our times, theories of nationalism, the public sphere, class or gender have emphasized the centrality of food and drink to the reproduction of these social phenomena.

It is useful to place the ongoing policy debates and political disputes surrounding the food politics of Brexit in wider historical and sociological perspective because food and drink have been of critical importance to European geopolitics in the modern age. In the nineteenth century, ‘Gastronationalism’ played a significant part in the formation of national identity in major states like Italy and France, and the invention of national and sub-national food cultures remains a feature of politics across Europe (an activity, somewhat ironically, much supported by the EU). But modern national food cultures have been shaped by a more-or-less conscious mimicry or rejection of other food cultures. The traditional British distaste for garlic – a French predilection – developed at the same time as a public eating culture massively influenced by French ideas of culinary technique and table service. The ‘revival’ of British food over the last twenty years is in fact far more of an invention shaped by foreign food developments, such as the Slow Food movement originating in Italy.

At the same time, the struggle to define national cuisines within states has often mirrored deep divides along lines of class, gender, and ethnicity. Brexit is – or has become – more than a disagreement over the economic costs and benefits of EU membership. It has expressed underlying conflicts in modern British society, and these conflicts are reflected in contending visions of what British food is and should be. Post-Brexit, British Gastronationalism is likely to be reinvented once again. As one restaurant critic recently put it: ‘In a post-Europe landscape, we’ll drink only Denbies red wine from the vineyards of Dorking and eat fish and chips off fancy plates while listening to vintage Arctic Monkeys’.

Alex Colás and Jason Edwards teach in the Politics Department at Birkbeck College and convene the Birkbeck Food Group. Get free tickets for the launch reception on Thursday 13 December where discount copies of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System will be on sale.

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Shining a light on brain development

Since recording the first brain images of babies in Africa, Professor Clare Elwell, part of the Brain Imaging for Global HealTH (BRIGHT) network, of which Birkbeck is a member, has been leading a pioneering study to increase our understanding of early brain development. Clare discusses bringing a new imaging technology to a remote Gambian village, and how it could help babies suffering from malnutrition to reach their full potential.

Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Before they reach five years of age, one in four children across the globe are malnourished. There’s a lot of research showing the detrimental impact this has on their development. But we know very little about what’s going on inside their brains.

Conventional brain imaging techniques, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), require large, bulky and expensive scanners. Unfortunately, this technology is not available in resource-poor settings, often where malnutrition is most prevalent, and is not always suitable for very young babies.

Clare Elwell with an infant taking part in the BRIGHT study: Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The BRIGHT families

We’re recruiting the mothers before the babies are born, because some of our measures start within the first few days of the infants’ lives. It’s a huge commitment. We’re extremely grateful to all the families in our study, both in the UK and in The Gambia.

For some mothers this is their first baby; they have no idea what’s ahead of them, and yet they’ve agreed to enrol into a study where we’re going to be part of their lives for at least two years. It’s really thrilling to see how motivated and how dedicated they are to this project.

Hopes for the future

I think the BRIGHT study is a good example of where a solution had existed for a long time, but we just didn’t know about the problem. Once I realised that understanding infant brain development in Africa was a challenge, it’s been incredibly rewarding to bring in existing technology to help.

Infant with fNIRS imaging headset in Keneba: Image credit Ian Farrell

We’d like to continue to follow our cohort and to study them in the pre-school years, so that we have a continuous measure of their brain function. I’d also really like to see the MRC field station at Keneba become a centre of excellence for infant brain development studies. Capacity building has been a large part of our project and we have been training many local field staff to conduct a whole range of infant brain development assessments. This will help us use all the skills and the talent that’s already in Africa to learn how we can optimise the methods we are using; to better understand brain development in this population; and ultimately, to ensure that all infants reach their potential in leading happy and healthy lives.

The BRIGHT study is a collaborative project, made up of a team of researchers from UCL, Birkbeck University of London, the Medical Research Council Units in Cambridge and The Gambia at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Cambridge University and Cambridge University Hospitals.

The project is part of the Global fNIRS initiative for the use of fNIRS in global health projects. This blog was first published by the Medical Research Council, and is reposted with their permission.

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