So it looks like a hard Brexit is still the government’s goal, or failing that, no deal at all. Come what may, it seems their desire to stop British and European citizens moving freely across EU borders trumps everything else. Never mind that the 23 June referendum result was extremely close; never mind that for every one remain voter, there was just one and eight hundredths of a leave voter (yes, the ratio of remain to leave voters was just 1 to 1.08).
Despite the almost equal divide, the government has embarked on a winner takes all approach, without any attempt to compromise. All that talk in the referendum aftermath of uniting the country has proved to be rhetoric, a point illustrated by the general election result almost a year later. Surely a more democratically minded government would ensure that we leave the EU on terms that are more acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the public, and not just the hardcore Brexiteers.
Of course, for VCSE organisations, the impact of a hard Brexit will likely take many years to play out. The most immediate concerns will be the potential loss of up to 5% of the sector’s workforce if European workers decide they are no longer welcome. Then there is the likely loss of financial support as European funding for projects ends and is not replaced. Indeed, civil society organisations in the UK receive the second highest level of aid funding in the EU.
But as with many other sectors, the ramifications of leaving the EU go considerably further. On Brexit day, thanks to the Repeal Bill, all current EU regulations will transfer into UK law, handing incredible executive power to the government. Theresa May’s minority government, will be able to undo environmental, consumer, worker and health and safety protections with almost no parliamentary scrutiny. This is hardly taking back control for the British people, as they won’t get any say at all….unless of course there is another election.
Quite what will happen remains to be seen, but for the voluntary sector, as an employer, a provider of services, and an advocate for beneficiaries, the effects on all those involved could be profound.
Then there is the loss of our participation in the wide range of European bodies such as the European Medicines Agency; and what this could mean for research and jobs. Medical and health charities are already worried about the impact of hard Brexit on European research programmes.
Indeed, with austerity looking set to continue, along with the low-key but ongoing privatisation of our public services, these were already difficult times. But on top of this will come Brexit’s creeping effect on the economy in the form of higher prices and probable job losses. The overall effect of this on the vulnerable, and on social cohesion, will place more demands on the voluntary sector at a time when funding is tight.
So the future it seems, looks challenging. Like it or not then, VCSE organisations will have to make more noises politically if they are to be heard. I could be wrong (although reaction to the CFG report suggests I am not) but I doubt many VCSE organisations want to see a hard Brexit. So they must let this be known – to their local infrastructure bodies, to their national organisations, to politicians – but also the public. For their part, the likes of NCVO and Social Enterprise UK need to build on the work they are already doing, engage with their members, and take the calls for a softer Brexit to the heart of government and to anyone else who will listen.
Sadly, delivering this message will not be easy, since neither a change of political direction or a sudden interest in the sector from our political masters seems likely. But doing nothing is not really an option. Indeed, if there is no watering down of hard Brexit then the sector’s social impact will surely suffer; and that will be bad for everyone.
(This is an updated version of an article that was first published on the Citrus Consultancy blog).