The agreement is good on climate, pays lip service to the concept of sustainable development and affirms the parties’ determination “to maintain and improve” environmental and other standards (p182). But Greener UK’s preliminary analysis concludes that it gives little certainty that standards will not be lowered in the future.
Although Brexit is finally and definitively “done”, the sovereignty vs level playing field debate is set to run and run. In Jill Rutter’s words, “Brussels could be lurking in the corner of UK domestic policy debates for decades to come”.
The prime minister believes the ability to diverge from EU rules is “the point of our exit”, but to get a deal he had to concede that this ability is limited; indeed, that neither side should be able to secure a competitive advantage as standards rise. The question is, how enforceable are the TCA’s provisions on environmental and other standards?
There is possibly less scope to weaken protections
The PM says “we have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered”. The Brexit Ultras of the European Research Group agree: “The ‘level playing field’ clauses go further than in comparable trade agreements, but their impact on the practical exercise of sovereignty is likely to be limited if addressed by a robust government.” By contrast, Prof Damian Chalmers thinks the level playing field provisions could bite hard, leaving the UK with less scope to weaken social and environmental protections than it had as a member of the EU.
Time will tell who is right, though most commentary suggests that the provisions will be hard to enforce. What is clear is that the TCA does little to protect nature in the UK. It is strong on “the fight against climate change which represent an existential threat to humanity” (p189). This is particularly welcome given earlier UK government attempts to exclude climate from the agreement. But when it comes to nature we will, as Richard Benwell has pointed out, have to fight our battles domestically.
Of course, that is no bad thing. But it makes it even more essential, for England, that the Environment Bill is strengthened and that all four nations of the UK put in place strong, independent bodies to enforce environmental law.
The country has chosen sovereignty over prosperity
We will also have to work even harder to make the case for investment to restore the environment and develop a green economy. Because the reality is that the deal – a hard Brexit by any definition – will reduce our trade and make the country poorer (most analysts put the impact at around four per cent of GDP). The country has chosen sovereignty over prosperity. That means less money to tackle air pollution, restore biodiversity, clean up our rivers and so on. It also means less money to bring about the industrial transformation we need to deliver net zero and take advantage of the economic opportunities as the world decarbonises.
But the money will have to be found if the country is to have any chance of rebuilding its prosperity after Brexit and the pandemic. That will mean a combination of public investment and a policy framework to incentivise private investment. The government has the right aspirations on both climate and nature, but there are huge gaps in delivery (see Green Alliance’s latest net zero policy tracker).
As we try to put the Brexit trauma behind us, it is important that the British environment movement does not turn inward. Whatever happens, we need to co-operate with our closest neighbours. The TCA goes further on the environment than other trade deals, but it does not go far enough. A couple of days after the referendum, Boris Johnson promised “intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership… on improving the environment”. Since then, acrimony over Brexit has made it almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Now we have a deal, I hope that will change and we can begin to work for a deep environmental partnership between the UK and EU, in our mutual interest and that of the planet. As it is, to quote Greener UK’s briefing, “the agreement is light on mechanisms to promote shared ambition or joint environmental action, and leaves much for both sides to do to establish new ways of working together”.
The UK’s best interests should govern decisions now
If we can begin to think calmly about what is in the UK’s best interests, without seeing everything through a Brexit lens, perhaps we will reverse some of the self defeating decisions of the last few years. We should, for instance, review the decision to set up our own costly and inferior system for regulating chemicals, rather than staying in the EU system. We should also explore ways to rejoin the European Environment Agency.
Now that the deal is done, the Greener UK coalition will move into a new phase, focusing particularly on environmental governance and trade. We will also watch carefully to see how the TCA is implemented. The fact that it includes commitments to environmental standards and climate action is worth celebrating. This was not a foregone conclusion: we had to argue hard for them, both at Westminster and in Brussels. The important thing now is to ensure that these commitments are honoured.