Environmental standards are key to unlocking Brexit negotiations

The 'level playing field' is about stopping a race to the bottom on environmental standards.

Union Jack and European flag

Let’s face it. Almost everyone thought that Northern Ireland would be the big Brexit stumbling block.

The border arrangements, or the UK Government’s continued desire to break international law through the Internal Markets Bill, would be front of the queue to torpedo a deal at the last moment.

But it’s time to face up to what we at Friends of the Earth have been saying for a long time. It’s the environment, stupid!

Yesterday, Boris Johnson met the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen for (another set of) ‘last-ditch’ talks to rescue the UK-EU future relationship negotiations.

Three issues were top of the agenda. Fishing rights, rules on shared standards – the so called ‘level playing field’ – and how any resulting deal will be enforced. 

At the core of the fishing rights argument are questions of sustainable (or unsustainable) food production and marine protection.

The level playing field disagreement is, at its heart, about whether the UK or the EU should be free to weaken existing environmental protections, and if both sides can agree a way of dealing with changes to standards in the future. And clashes continue over what happens if they break these important environmental rules.

What we saw yesterday was more can-kicking. Both sides can agree the negotiations are back on – they just can’t agree on an outcome. 

The level playing field is emerging as the real hurdle. While this is often seen as wholly focused on ensuring companies in one country don’t have a financial advantage over companies elsewhere in the EU, it’s really about setting shared minimum levels of environmental and social protection.

Compliance with these standards often costs money but if profit was the sole motivator, both sides could simply guarantee that businesses can act in any way they want to bring home the bacon.

It is precisely because governments and communities across Europe think that protecting people and our natural world should come before business success that the level playing field has become such a totemic Brexit issue. 

The UK has moved from excluding mention of retaining existing standards to (seemingly) agreeing a guarantee that neither side will move backwards is acceptable.

But it isn’t yet clear if that applies to all our environmental protections, or a heavily edited list of mutual priorities.

And they’ve stopped short of EU suggestions that if one side increases protections in the future, the other should be bound to follow.

So what is the middle ground? It’s looking increasingly as if the answer lies in three things: guarantees of shared environmental ambition, mechanisms for dialogue and effective, objective dispute settlement that respects the sovereignty of both sides. 

The EU is clearly unconvinced of the UK’s commitment to the first of these – environmental ambition. That’s evident from recent EU-27 proposals that the deal include an ‘evolution’ mechanism, to trigger dialogue where one partner increases standards, and agree consequences for trade where the other partner does not follow suit.

Despite a manifesto commitment to environmental ambition, the UK government’s flagship Environment Bill has progressed at barely a snail’s pace, and a full post-Brexit environmental watchdog isn’t expected until next summer.

The Internal Markets Bill undermines ambition beyond Westminster, preventing the four nations from legislating to stop the sale of environmentally damaging goods in the future, as long as those goods are produced in other parts of the UK. Recent moves to deregulate the UKs planning system can’t have calmed hearts and minds either. 

Dialogue regarding the evolution of future environmental standards is not the sticking point here. Maybe agreeing that, and setting out a forum to share information on new higher standards and discuss mutual adoption, would be a good starting point. 

Right now it’s hard to envisage a compromise on the consequences of one side lagging behind on standards in the future. But back in February, when the EU first published proposals on the level playing field, the mechanism suggested involved simply ensuring the commitment not to regress remained relevant in the future.

Each time both sides independently raised their standards, a new, common, higher baseline would have been established, to support future progress. The UK may now want to go and reconsider this compromise solution, and the sensitivity it demonstrates to sovereignty and progress on both sides – but it may be too late. 

Further indications of practical environmental progress at home might help to settle the EU’s nerves. The UK government has removed controversial clauses from the Internal Markets Bill already – they could agree to ensure it protects environmental ambition across the UK too.

The Environment Bill could be strengthened and prioritised to clear a path for effective new UK environmental governance, to hold government to account. Our leaders could take practical action to implement the UK’s net-zero commitment, rather than focusing on easing up planning restrictions that protect carbon-rich landscapes and limit polluting emissions. 

However, the real key will be to decide how this agreement will be enforced in the future. Both sides need to be happy that the dispute settlement mechanism will be fair, and respect the right of the UK and the EU-27 to develop independent legislation.

But it also needs to lock the partners in to the ambition and progress outlined in the text of the deal. If the future relationship is to include commitments to trade fairly, to support climate action, and to maintain high standards, then these should be enforceable.

Both sides will need to be mature enough to play fairly, to agree the rules that will guarantee they keep these promises, and to accept consequences if they do not. This maturity must extend to accepting that it is up to UK and the EU governments to demonstrate global leadership, by designing an enforcement process that is properly objective, evidence-driven and fit for purpose, and which focuses on ensuring both sides get what they want out of the agreement.  

We’re now facing a new, Sunday, deadline for agreeing a deal, and the environment still looks set to be the central issue. And it won’t go away – whatever the final outcome, these concerns, unlike the UK, remain. To end on a prediction – the first dispute in the future relationship, whenever it is agreed, will be about our environment, and shared ambition will only become more important in maintaining that relationship in the future.  Who knew? 

Kierra Box is the trade and Brexit lead campaigner at Friends of the Earth

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