EDF Gendering Brexit Blog series: “Don’t Worry, Women’s Rights and Equality are Already Embedded within our Legal Framework” – A Feminist Reading of Brexit Myths and Narratives

Just like the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit could be an opportunity to re-assert the centrality of core values such as equality and diversity. And yet, neither the UK government nor the EU have acknowledged their respective role in ensuring socio-economic rights in a post-Brexit settlement.

This is from our second contributor,  Professor Roberta Guerrina at the University of Surrey who questions the exclusion of feminist voices from the Brexit negotiations.

The 2016 EU Referendum and the ensuring process of exiting the EU have already been defined as a “critical juncture” and “a watershed moment” by a number of commentators. What is clear that it is a break with “politics as usual” and it marks to onset of a highly divisive political discourse driven by the pursuit of a single objective (Brexit). As the process of negotiating the withdrawal from the EU is occupying most of government’s energy and time, it is increasingly clear that much of the “other” work of government has become sidelined.

Moreover, as the government seeks to mediate between the interests and concerns of different groups within Parliament, and within the Conservative party, it is increasingly constructing the national interest in a very narrow and limited way. For this and many other reasons, Brexit is an important “moment” in British and European politics, and like all “watershed” moments, it will establish political structures that will have long lasting impact on gender equality policies and politics¹. As such it requires detailed analysis so that threats are identified and warnings raised about the unintended consequences of different policy choices for the pursuit of an intersectional equality agenda².

“Wait, what? Did you really say opportunity (& threat)?”

It is worth noting that crises and critical junctures provide opportunities for advancing, as well as retrenching a progressive agenda. A crisis is, by its very nature, a break with the status quo. As such it has the potential of opening a space for new voices to be included in political processes and debate. For instance it is widely accepted that women’s contribution to the economy and the “war effort” during the two World Wars in the 20th century was instrumental in engendering support for women’s enfranchisement.

Conversely, the latest economic crisis and the ensuing politics austerity have had the opposite effect. The government’s failure to carry out gender impact assessments resulted in an asymmetrical impact of austerity policies and the crisis, whereby black and minority ethnic women have been the most negatively affected³.

It appears that recent crises, e.g. the financial crisis, are the result of structural imbalances. Progressive and creative solutions would therefore require a detailed critique of the socio-political structures upon which the current model has been built⁴. However, this kind of analysis and response has not been forthcoming. Rather the continued exclusion of marginal groups is evident in the narratives of recovery that have become dominant across Europe since the Referendum. Focusing solely on the dominant economic interests, such narratives overlook the long term impact of fiscal measures on women, and black and minority ethnic groups⁵.

Just like the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit could be an opportunity to re-assert the centrality of core values such as equality and diversity. And yet, neither the UK government nor the EU have acknowledged their respective role in ensuring socio-economic rights in a post-Brexit settlement. Rather relegating equality and socio-economic rights to second order issues opens a space for political interests seeking to water down the agenda through a programme of deregulation and labour market reform¹. In order to understand the trajectory of equality as a policy principle in the context of Brexit we must therefore examine the values and priorities of those responsible for negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement.

So, what is going on?

The highly politicised negotiation process provides ample opportunities to map the priorities of both the UK government and the EU. The absence of women at the negotiating table has been widely noted already. The debate that has ensued relates to the position of gender equality policies post-Brexit and the impact this realignment will have on the UK’s gender regime.

It is interesting to note the almost complete absence of socio-economic and workers’ rights from mainstream discussions of Brexit and the negotiations. Focus on trade, market access, migration or freedom of movement and security has pushed issues relating to social policies to the margins, and has effectively silenced critical voices who are warning about the prospects for deregulation, crisis and renewed austerity post-Brexit.

Aside from concerns about established rights and legislation that may be adversely affected if the government adopts an aggressive de-regulatory policy in order for the UK to be competitive in the global economy, the gendered impact of mainstream policies has been largely overlooked. Work calling for gender impact assessments remains on the fringes of the debate and has had little traction with the government approach.

The appointment of Dominic Raab as Brexit secretary is not going to alleviate the concerns of women’s rights advocacy groups, but it has been received as a further setback for the inclusion of women’s voices and interests in the context of this critical juncture. A vocal critic of feminist politics, equality and socio-economic rights, Raab is thus unlikely to mainstream gender approaches and impact assessments in the negotiation process.

As we now move towards the final stage of the negotiations there is more uncertainty than ever about the kind of social model the UK is going to adopt post-Brexit. The Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society have warned that in the eventuality of an economic downturn post-Brexit, women will be negatively affected as workers, consumers and users of public services.

In this case, the process is likely to lead to the crystallisation of the dominant structure of power whereby women, and particularly women of colour, will be worst affected if Brexit brings about a downturn in economic performance. What is clear is that the exclusion of feminist voices from the negotiations and the focus on “higher” political priorities, e.g. trade, relegates equality to the status of a second order issue. Unless, policy makers take notice of these warnings, Brexit, like austerity, will re-produce social hierarchies and entrench economic inequalities.


¹ Hozic, A. and True, J. (2019) “Brexit as Scandal: Gender and Global Trumpism” Review of International Political Economy, Vol 24 (2): 270-87

² Guerrina, R. and Masselot, A (2018) “Walking in the Footprint of EU Law” Social Policy and Society, Vol. 17 (2): 319-330.

³ Emejulu, A and Bassel, L (2018) “Austerity and the Politics of Becoming” Journal of Common Market Studies Annual Review, Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jcms.12774

⁴ Walby, S. (2015) Crisis. Polity.

⁵ Cavaghan, R. and O’Dwyer, M (2018) “European Economic Governance: A Recovery for Whom?” Journal of Common Market Studies Annual Review, Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jcms.12770

The views expressed in this blog series may not necessarily reflect EDF’s official positions.

Roberta Guerrina is Jean Monnet Chair, Professor in Politics and Head of Department at the University of Surrey. She is a specialist in the politics of gender, with a particular interest in EU politics and social policy, citizenship and gender equality. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Common Market Studies, International Affairs, Women’s Studies International Forum, and Review of International Studies.


If you would like to contribute to our Gender and Brexit Blog series, get in touch at: info@equallyours.org.uk.

Share this article

Related posts

Gendering Brexit Blog

We've launched a Gendering Brexit blog series, where we invite experts and campaigners to write on the gendered impact of Brexit from a range of perspectives If you would like to contribute to the series, get in touch and email us at info@equallyours.org.uk