How not to deliver a green Brexit

stormy farm squareGreener UK’s aim has always been to get the best possible environmental outcome from Brexit. We have not taken sides on how the UK should leave the EU or whether it should do so, but have focused instead on the things we can clearly influence.

Pursuing this strategy has won the UK government’s agreement to a powerful new environmental watchdog, an ambitious environment act and the reform of English agricultural policy on the basis of ‘public money for public goods’. These will be big wins, but they are not yet nailed down. Their value depends, to a large extent, on what sort of Brexit we get, and with time running out – we are due to leave the European Union in less than six months – there is still a shocking degree of uncertainty about that.

But we can be certain that the Canada or Korea-style free trade deal, recently proposed by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and endorsed by a number of Conservative MPs, including Boris Johnson, would be enormously damaging to the environment and to British farming.

The IEA’s Plan A+ derides the view that the EU sets world-leading standards. It describes EU rules as “protectionist and artificially restrictive trade barriers”. It says:

“The EU has been found in violation of WTO rules in a number of agricultural sectors, for instance on measures affecting poultry meat from the United States, and hormone treated meat from Canada and the US. In this context, harmonisation to EU rules will be regarded by the world as moving the UK further away from good regulatory practice, and therefore a much less credible and valuable trading partner.” (p 50)

Inevitable downward pressure on standards
In other words, we should agree to import chlorine washed chicken, hormone treated beef and, one assumes, other products that do not meet current EU and UK standards, but which are acceptable in the US, Australia or Brazil (eg GM food).  That might not mean immediately lowering UK standards – see, for instance, Liam Fox’s carefully worded statement to this effect – but it would put UK producers at a competitive disadvantage and result in an irresistible downward pressure on our standards.

The paper says “there is no reason why the UK should accept the position that… access to the EU market should be constrained by differences across the broad horizontal areas like labour and environment. This is not how modern trade arrangements work” (p 55). But it is how the EU works. The EU is a trading superpower and can get away with it. If the UK post-Brexit moves away from EU standards, even if it argues that it was doing so to improve outcomes, it will face barriers to trade with the EU.

Plan A+ bemoans this and argues (on p 52) that the EU has moved “in an anti-competitive direction”, evidenced, among other things, by REACH (the EU’s system for authorising chemicals) and its interpretation of the precautionary principle (though the report does not explain what is wrong with it). It notes that if the UK chooses to diverge from EU environmental and labour standards, “it is likely to be treated as a reduction in standards… This is likely to prevent the UK implementing pro-competitive regulation in these areas, even if such reforms preserve or improve existing standards of protection.”

Pro-competitive regulation
This is the nub of the issue, both economically and environmentally. The dogmatic free traders want the UK to reject EU norms and embrace “pro-competitive regulation” (my Newspeak phrase of the month) in order to strike trade deals with non-EU countries. Whatever the protestations about high standards (separate from but equal to EU standards), the report’s authors, Shanker Singham and Radomir Tylecote, want to deregulate (or “pro-competitively regulate”). This is the opposite of a vision for a high standards UK. It is a vision for driving down environmental and other standards in the mistaken belief that this will increase the UK’s competitiveness.

The Greener UK coalition will continue to evaluate the options for Brexit closely, according to whether they are likely to benefit or harm the environment. There are pros and cons to most of the options on offer. But it is hard to see any environmental benefit in the IEA-Boris Johnson Plan A+ proposal or, indeed, similar proposals from Economists for Free Trade  and the Initiative for Free Trade and Cato Institute. They are designed to drive down standards. Indeed, the IEA’s report is funded by groups and individuals who have an interest in driving down standards.

If the UK pursues the course proposed in these reports, all the promises of a green Brexit will prove illusory.

[Photo via Pixabay]

2 comments

  • This is an issue as thorny as the Northern Ireland conundrum in my view.
    Like many in the environmental sector and indeed the author, I have been encouraged by what I’ve heard from Michael Gove and cautiously enthusiastic of the potential good exiting the CAP can do for UK agriculture and fisheries, both environmentally and economically.
    Nevertheless, the inability of both sides to act pragmatically when discussing trade is alarming and the ensuing panic amongst ministers to reassure business has created the conditions where those who would pursue free-market doctrine above all else “and to hell with the externalities”, are now being heard.

    I’m afraid that the EU has to shoulder some of the blame here and if it is as committed to environmental sustainability as some legislation implies, it should keep that firmly in mind when considering what is really to be ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in the final months of Brexit negotiations.

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