The Brexit debate has largely been an internal squabble among British factions vying for control of the UK’s national priorities. This has meant international pressures have lacked consideration in public discourse, particularly when it comes to the UK’s post-Brexit trading environment.
An assessment of the power dynamics between prospective trading partners and the UK sheds light on this. Two of the most important, the EU and the US, are the biggest economies in the world and thus wield massive power at any negotiating table. The environmental implications, both positive and negative, of this can be seen in recent cases: the US has threatened to cut off trade with Thailand if it bans US-made pesticides and EU member states may not ratify the EU-Mercosur deal over the lack of action in tackling Amazon rainforest fires.
The idea that the UK would not have to budge on at least some of these powers’ demands during future trade negotiations is highly questionable. Evidence shows how tough future negotiations will be, even on small things: the recent leaked official documents of pre-negotiation discussions between the UK and US show how UK efforts to include meagre references to climate change were “emphatically” slapped down.
The US position on the environment is very different to the EU’s
We already have an idea of what EU and US priorities are and there are major sticking points between the two on the environment. The EU has been transparent in its demands for the Future Relationship negotiations. Its red line is an EU-UK “level playing field” on a wide-ranging list of environmental issues, meaning the UK would not be able to regress on standards if it wanted relatively open access to the EU’s Single Market.
From the aforementioned documents, the position of the US is similarly clear. They corroborate the official US Trade Representative’s objectives and stakeholder consultation response for the negotiation, both published last year. These show that the US will push the UK to harmonise its import standards in areas such as animal welfare, food hygiene, pesticide usage and chemical safety to unlock full access for US goods to the UK market. UK nature is already in crisis under current conditions, but EU environmental standards are generally higher than those across the Atlantic.
If the UK did concede and lower its import standards, the government would be under severe deregulatory pressure to allow domestic businesses to stay competitive, with potentially devastating consequences for nature in Britain. For example, 72 harmful pesticides in use in the US are banned in the EU. In 2016, the US used over 140,000 tonnes of pesticide that would have been banned for use in the EU (and the UK by extension). The use of these pesticides is heavily implicated in species decline.
When compared side-by-side, it is clear that each of these powers is attempting to coax post-Brexit Britain into their regulatory orbit to boost trade. In both cases, given that the price of frictionless market access is regulatory alignment, an agreement on these terms with one precludes a comprehensive deal with the other, as Donald Trump himself admits. So there is a choice to be made.
Government commitments made need to become law
Economic impacts aside, a government that is serious about reversing nature’s decline should ensure that the future relationship with the EU reinforces the standards the UK currently has before concluding negotiations with the US (or any other country with lower standards). Safeguards would need to be installed into primary legislation, namely a commitment to non-regression on standards in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It was encouraging to see the Conservatives promise to uphold high environmental standards under all circumstances in their manifesto. The new government needs to convert these commitments into law quickly.
With polling showing consistently high levels of public concern over Brexit and the environment, how we decide the UK’s trading priorities is more important than ever. As things stand, UK trade negotiations will be some of the most opaque in the world, agreed behind closed doors with no parliamentary oversight.
As Greener UK’s recent briefing outlined, to ensure proper scrutiny and public buy-in, future trade negotiations should include input from the devolved administrations, UK civil society and environmental experts. The final content of agreements should be voted on in parliament, with the option to walk away if the environment will suffer.
Despite seemingly entering an era of ‘taking back control’, agreeing trade deals with global superpowers necessarily means relinquishing control of some independence. The question is not whether we will have to compromise when trading post-Brexit. We will have to. The point is which compromises most align with the UK’s vision for the future and its aims to protect nature.