A question of standards
Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement guaranteed that environmental standards would not fall below their current level (“non-regression”). That guarantee has gone from the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson. Aspirations to uphold “common high standards” are relegated to the non-binding Political Declaration and it is made clear that they must be compatible with the UK’s desire to develop an independent trade policy.
Greener UK’s concerns were quoted in Saturday’s Commons debate on the proposed deal, but the response from the government was to ask how anyone can doubt the UK’s ability to look after its own affairs.
The prime minister said (column 572): “I have complete faith in this House to choose… the highest standards of environmental protections and workers’ rights. No one, anywhere in this Chamber, believes in lowering standards. Instead, we believe in improving them… and seizing the opportunities of our new freedoms.” The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay (column 602), argued that people “should have more confidence that we in this House will set regulation that is world leading and best in class”.
Zac Goldsmith, the environment minister tweeted: “As we leave the EU our standards will remain at least as high, and will not – cannot – be sacrificed in the pursuit of free trade agreements.” He cited government assurances that “we will not open up our markets for goods that do not meet our high standards” and that the promise of legally binding targets in the environment bill was “already superior to a non-regression commitment”.
There are reasons for serious concern
I remain sceptical. This is not because I do not trust Zac Goldsmith on the environment – Zac was a committed environmentalist long before he was an MP – or because I think the government as a whole is desperate to rip up environmental protections. “Trust and verify” is a good adage for assessing any government’s promises. But there are reasons for serious concern.
First, whatever the intentions of current ministers, however good the proposed environment bill (and it needs strengthening, starting with a firm legal commitment to non-regression), we cannot know what the future will hold.
What we do know is that over the last 40 years, UK governments have often been forced by the EU to stop polluting. It was the EU that made the UK clean its beaches and water and it is the EU that is now forcing some action on air quality. According to the Institute for Government, almost half of European Court judgements against the UK between 2003 and 2016 concerned the environment.
All governments in all countries do bad things from time to time. International institutions and laws – the UN, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, the EU etc. – often stop them doing so. To support supranational laws and constraints on national action is not necessarily undemocratic or unpatriotic.
Second, the government must explain exactly why it wants the right to diverge. Non-regression entails respect for existing standards. As David Baldock of the IEEP explains: “The non-regression obligation does not mean that UK law needs to remain harmonised with EU legislation… However, in principle non-regression establishes a floor beneath which standards must not fall and provides some counterweight to the UK signing trade agreements in future that result in a reduction in these standards.”
Why does the government want to diverge from EU standards?
Why is a government that is “committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards” so keen to have the right to ditch them?
Opposition MPs, of course, think that it is because they want to deregulate. In Saturday’s debate, Liz Kendall argued (column 636) that “it was precisely in order to cut… rights and standards that Brexiteers argued for years that we should leave the EU… I wish Government Members would just be honest and say, ‘We believe that the future of the country is as a low-tax, small-state, deregulated country.’ They have a perfect right to think that, but they should have the guts to put that vision of Britain to the British people.”
I am not sure that it is quite as clear as that. I think the government, taking the prime minister’s lead, is suffering from cakeism. It wants all good things – high standards and the ability to undercut other countries; a close relationship with the EU and a good trade deal with the US; protection for UK farmers and cheap food for UK consumers. It has not addressed the argument made by Jonathan Reynolds in the debate (column 603) that “an economy cannot be a European-style economy and a US-style economy at the same time”.
This is the debate we will have to have. But for now it is imperative that the government commits firmly in law not to lower existing environmental (and other) standards. That really is not much to ask. It can then set about surprising and delighting everyone by vigorously raising standards so that they are truly “world leading”.