For ardent supporters of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, Brexit presents an opportunity to revive a buccaneering approach to trade that has, under EU membership, been chastened by burdensome regulations. Unbridled by EU law in the areas of employment and immigration, London will once again be able to enact or jettison legislation in accordance with its own economic prerogatives, without being held hostage to the disparate needs of 27 other countries. Remainers, of course, counter that EU laws governing things like weekly working hours, for example, are not arbitrary impositions that stifle productivity but rather hard-fought provisions guaranteeing the basic rights and safety of workers.
While the above debate captures the age-old divide between the capitalist and the working classes, there is another section of society who, of necessity, refrain from broadcasting their opinion on the matter, but whose line of work will be just as affected as any other. This includes the likes of smugglers, dealers, and fraudsters – that is to say, people engaged in criminal activity of just about any stripe that has an international dimension. According to experts, Brexit could mean a boom time for criminals.
One of the areas of the statute book that Brexiteers most relish the thought of daubing with Tipp-Ex once the UK is free from Brussels’ diktats is labour law, which they see as having robbed employers of control over the workplace conditions in their businesses. And according to Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International, organised crime groups – especially those involved in human smuggling – are often attracted to countries with weak labour laws, “The weaker they are,” he says, “The more vulnerable people are to slavery. A lot of labour protection in the UK comes from EU law, and there is a risk it may not be translated into UK law.”
Among those hoping to benefit from such a change are people-smuggling gangs from places like Albania and Vietnam. Indeed, the former of those two countries presents an interesting parallel to the UK. As a country going through the process of aligning its legal system with the EU which it seeks to join, it is on the exact opposite trajectory to that of Britain.
From Albania’s perspective, Brexit must look like an odd decision. For Albanians, the EU legal system, from which the UK is trying to escape, is one of the biggest attractions for joining the bloc. To Albanians, EU justice represents the victory of law and order over the forces of corruption and chaos. This was manifest in last week’s demonstrations that brought thousands of Albanians onto the streets to protest against the web of organised crime and political corruption that grips the country in a stranglehold. The backdrop to these protests is Albania’s role as a major cannabis exporter, which has earned it the label of the “Colombia of Europe.” But as Albania edges closer to EU membership, the desire to shed that image and be regarded as a “normal” European country is spurring Albanians to hold their government to account.
Another country aiming to enter the EU not long after the UK leaves it is Montenegro, which perhaps even more than Albania, is in need of the kind of legal strictures that the EU provides and the UK is looking to dispense with. If Montenegro is to be ready for membership by 2025, as Brussels hopes it will be, it has an uphill task ahead of it. A challenge that won’t be made any easier if the country’s long-time strongman, Milo Djukanovic, wins the presidential elections – again – in April. Independent election observers will need to be on hand to ensure that if he does win, his election isn’t marred by the kind of serious irregularities that have ushered him into power on no less than four occasions already – three times as prime minister and once as president. Indeed, Montenegro’s figures for violent crime under Djukanovic provide an object lesson in the value of mechanisms like the European Arrest Warrant and the Europol database that the UK will be walking away from once it leaves the bloc.
While nobody expects the UK to dissolve into a gangster state akin to Montenegro or Albania, it is interesting to see how the EU institutions that the UK is trying to escape from are the very same ones that aspiring members are looking to for salvation.