This is an Inside Track long read.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he plans to renegotiate the Brexit deal. He has described the current deal as “dead”, for reasons I won’t go into. But there are other reasons why the deal and, in particular, the political declaration, which sketches an outline of the future EU-UK relationship, could stand some re-examination.
Just before the deal was agreed last November, the IPCC published a terrifying report into the scale of disruption that awaits us if our planet keeps heating up. Since then, the IPBES global assessment found one million species face extinction due to human activity. School kids have been striking around the globe, fearful for their futures. In the UK, the environment is polling as one of the top three issues facing the country, after Extinction Rebellion protestors dramatically raised the alarm. And parliament has declared a climate and environment emergency.
The EU as a whole has turned a shade greener following this year’s elections, in which record numbers of Green MEPs were elected and the German Green party came second behind Angela Merkel’s CDU. Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, from the conservative EPP group, is backing a much stronger 2030 emissions target and has put a ‘green deal for Europe’ at the top of her priority list. That’s markedly different from the Juncker Commission, which launched a fitness check of the nature directives to make them more business-friendly, sparking a huge public campaign. Politics has undoubtedly changed, and the attitudes of politicians I’ve spoken to at both EU and UK level in the past few weeks are changing with it.
So, what would the Brexit deal look like if it were renegotiated acknowledging the environmental crisis?
A new era of environmental competitiveness
During the year following the referendum, the environment barely featured in political conversation in the UK. While making the case for stronger environmental laws, the Greener UK coalition’s first concern was to head off the threat of deregulation, which seemed to be at the heart of some Leavers’ motivations. At this time, both Leave and Remain supporting MPs, across the parties and the country, signed Greener UK’s pledge to ensure the UK would match or exceed existing environmental protections.
It was only with the arrival of the EU Withdrawal Bill, which provided a campaign target, and the appointment of Michael Gove, a Brexiter determined to reenergise Defra and coax into the light his party’s “shy greens”, that the terms of debate started to shift within government. His Unfrozen Moment speech in 2017 introduced the concept of a ‘green Brexit’, with the UK embracing higher environmental standards and agriculture reform. As parliamentarians began to agitate for environmental improvements to the bill, Michael Gove pledged not only to fill the governance gap but to do so with a “world-leading” new green watchdog.
This idea of environmental competition has since been the dominant frame for the government’s green rhetoric. In his speech last week, the Defra secretary was at it again: “In areas previously covered by European legislation, we have shown our ambitions to go above and beyond.” He reasonably cited the overhaul of agriculture policy, and more puzzlingly pointed at fisheries (the current version of the Fisheries Bill would actually weaken protections). But he hasn’t been the only one. David Davis as Brexit Secretary proudly talked up a “race to the top in global on standards” and Theresa May’s keynote environmental speech riffed on the world-leading theme.
A future environmental partnership is needed
A dose of competitiveness is no bad thing, and it’s encouraging to see our political parties vying with each other too. But this is an interconnected world, in which everyone’s lives are entangled in complex ways; in which wildlife, pollution and supply chains crisscross borders; and where rising geopolitical tensions, isolationism and far right populism could dangerously undermine efforts to sustain a healthy global ecosystem. In this context, being the best won’t be enough.
Which brings us back to Brexit, and the second dominant frame for talking about the environment: economic competitiveness. This has been driven in large part by the EU, worried about a deregulatory UK undercutting the continent. It’s not an unfounded fear when you look at the IEA’s ‘Plan A+’ report advocating a pivot towards US standards last autumn, and the politicians who enthusiastically endorsed it (the report has since been withdrawn following a Charity Commission investigation).
The Withdrawal Agreement, therefore, includes broad environmental non-regression provisions, forbidding both the EU and UK to weaken standards, and requiring robust systems of enforcement. It’s a great relief to environmentalists too, though it also requires domestic legal underpinning through the Environment Bill, and it should hardly need spelling out in an era of environmental crisis.
The UK government likes to call the post-exit relationship the ‘FEP’, the future economic partnership. The political declaration states that the future relationship “must ensure open and fair competition”. But the environment cannot be treated as just another element of the level playing field. Now, more than ever before, states sharing the same goals have to work together to set the agenda, build confidence, identify solutions and build wider alliances, particularly as we head into 2020, a “super year” of critical global summits.
The future EU-UK relationship cannot be defined in terms of trade alone, and arguably no 21st century trade deal should. The political declaration should set out a commitment to create an environmental partnership as well, with the aim of achieving a high level of environmental protection. As well as the principle of non-regression, the EU and the UK should agree to a principle of environmental progress. This can be bolstered by setting out shared goals, agreeing procedures for political level conversation about raising the bar higher, and establishing mechanisms to hold each other to account and for citizens to raise complaints if necessary. The EU has plenty of ready made spaces for co-operation, such as the European Environment Agency, which includes non member states, and which plays an important role in problem definition and agenda setting.
No more off the shelf trade deals
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has a famous (in Brexit circles, anyway) diagram showing the type of relationship available depending on the UK’s red lines. It’s logical and seems reasonable: the UK has decided to leave; the EU is a voluntary association; so it’s up to the UK to say what it wants instead. The EU imposes certain requirements in return for the benefits of deeper integration, the most famous being the four freedoms that come with the single market. But its main spokespeople give the impression of laid back high street retail assistants, ready to put their finger on the precise item to meet the browser’s needs, but not venturing to express opinions of their own.
Given the state of things, is this passivity ok? When humanity has inadvertently created its own, dangerous, geological era – the Anthropocene – business as usual is not an option, and neither are off the shelf trade deals. Despite the way the British media describes it, the Brexit deal agreed last year is as much the EU’s as Theresa May’s.
The EU has a responsibility to the planet and, since the European parliamentary elections, it has political considerations as well. There are already concerns amongst member states about the Mercosur trade deal and whether it will drive deforestation of the Amazon, trampling more indigenous people’s rights and undermining EU farmers. Trade policy needs a rethink, and EU negotiations with the relatively like minded UK would be a good place to start.
Time to revisit the political declaration
Given the focus of the Conservative leadership contest, the Brexit deal’s renegotiation is expected to centre on the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. From an environmental perspective, this is an alarming prospect and requires very careful handling by both sides, as the backstop is where non-regression provisions sit, as well as measures for continued environmental co-operation across the island of Ireland. While the EU has said the Withdrawal Agreement is not negotiable, there is widespread speculation about reverting to the Northern Ireland-only backstop, as it was the UK government that wanted it to be broadened to include the rest of the UK. The draft protocol from 2018 had a far narrower environmental scope, only referring explicitly to law concerning the movement of plants and animals.
The 31 October deadline for the Article 50 process of course makes the whole renegotiation enterprise very challenging, and reserves of goodwill on each side are not high. But, if there’s a renegotiation to be done, the EU and UK should take the opportunity to revisit the political declaration. They must reset the framework for the next phase of talks to recognise the need for both sides to address the environmental crisis together, and urgently.