Will we get a Trade Bill fit for the environment?

containers Michael Gaida CCThis post is by Matthew Stanton (@MStantonUK), lawyer at WWF-UK, and Ali Plummer, senior policy officer on Brexit at RSPB. They are both representatives of the Greener UK coalition.

The government’s recently released 25 year environment plan says it is a “comprehensive and long term approach to protecting and enhancing our natural habitats and landscapes in England for the next generation”. But, to be truly comprehensive, the plan must, of course, go beyond Defra and be owned across government departments and bodies, with all taking a responsibility for its delivery and achievements. For instance, the UK’s new external trade policy presents a tremendous opportunity for the UK to lead the way in promoting sustainable trade.

The Trade Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will be the first indication of how the government plans to take trade policy forward. But, as it stands, it fails to reflect promises made by the government in the 25 year environment plan, including to “leave a lighter footprint on the global environment by enhancing sustainability and supporting zero deforestation supply chains.”

Through the bill, the government hopes to copy the terms of trade between the EU and third countries and enter into new deals with these third countries on the exact same terms. One of the aims of the bill is to enable the government to amend domestic legislation to facilitate the implementation of such ‘rolled-over’ trade deals. The current draft would allow this to happen without proper scrutiny and consultation with parliament or, indeed, with the wider public. It is this unfettered ability to amend domestic legislation that will threaten our environmental standards.

The reality is that EU trade deals with third countries cannot simply be rolled-over in bilateral agreements between the UK and third countries. Such agreements would be legally distinct and new. It would be open to third countries to seek to renegotiate the terms of trade. Indeed, such renegotiation should be expected because third countries might not grant the UK the same concessions they granted the EU, due to the UK’s smaller market size. However, the government’s approach to the Trade Bill does not acknowledge this.

The UK as a rule taker
The EU is the largest trading bloc in the world and is, therefore, in a very strong negotiating position when it comes to thrashing out the terms of trade. As third countries need to follow EU standards to access the European market, its regulations have a huge extraterritorial effect, making the EU a rule maker on a global scale. The size difference between the UK and the EU means that the UK may not have the same leverage in negotiations, so new bilateral agreements could be significantly different to the current terms of trade.

Trade Secretary Liam Fox has promised that the purpose of any amendment to legislation would be purely to ensure these deals can continue, stating at second reading of the Trade Bill that it was about “continuity of what we have at the present time”. But, if this is the case, the government should have no problem allowing the Trade Bill to be amended to set such promises in stone.

Trade deals should follow the ambition of the 25 year environment plan
The Trade Bill should prioritise protection of the UK’s environment and reflect the ambitious  proposals made in the 25 year environment plan. The plan states that “the UK is determined to make good on its clear commitments to support companies to implement zero-deforestation supply chains.” UK external trade policy and related legislation should, in the spirit of that commitment, place obligations on the government to ensure that trade deals entered into by the UK will not have a negative impact on the global environment. For example, the UK must avoid entering into trade agreements that facilitate supply chains directly responsible for deforestation in the Amazon.

Deals that “leave a lighter footprint”
All new trade deals and renegotiations of trade deals should be subject to sustainability impact assessments focusing not just on economic impacts, but also environmental and social impacts. These assessments should cover the UK and the other signatories to the agreements. In this way the UK’s global footprint can be assessed and the government can make good on its promise to “leave a lighter footprint on the global environment.”

By having high domestic standards, requiring compliance with those standards to be a prerequisite to market access and ensuring all trade deals are subject to sustainability impact assessments, the UK can position itself as a global leader in green, clean, sustainable trade, with all the advantages that brings.

Our recommendation is that the Trade Bill is amended to include the following:

  • require all new trade agreements and amendments to existing terms of trade to be subject to a sustainability impact assessment;
  • ensure delegated powers under the bill cannot be used to lower environmental standards;
  • require parliament’s approval for any non-functional amendments to domestic legislation, ie those that go further than simply extending existing terms of trade to a new agreement with a third country;
  • require the government to consult on a new UK external trade policy, setting the framework for future trade agreements and including provisions on sustainable development, zero deforestation supply chains and the objectives of the 25 year environment plan.

It was significant that the prime minister personally launched the 25 year environment plan, positioning the environment as a core, cross-government concern. The Trade Bill and future trade policy are an immediate opportunity to demonstrate how this positioning will be translated into practice.

[Image courtesy of Michael Gaida, CC0]

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