Brexit: UK sets out green battlelines in EU trade talks

The British government has proposed environmental protections in a post-Brexit relationship with the EU that fall well short of the partnership proposed by Brussels, drawing heavily from the controversial EU-Canada trade agreement CETA.

In a proposed draft agreement published on Tuesday, the UK government has largely copied and pasted CETA’s provisions on sustainable development and trade, with commitments to uphold existing levels of protection and a recognition that it is “inappropriate” to promote trade and investment by undermining or neglecting environmental standards.

It also includes identical passages to CETA allowing either party to regulate where there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage” even without “full scientific certainty”, along with commitments to promote public awareness about the environment, and a “right to regulate” and to “adopt or modify its laws and policies” relating to the environment.

While the EU’s draft text, which was published in March, would also grant parties the ‘right to regulate’, it contains much stricter provisions on environmental non-regression and an aim to “seek to increase” the level of environmental protection and greenhouse gas reduction targets after the transition period. 

As repeatedly emphasised by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU draft cites the “geographic proximity and economic interdependence” and the two parties’ “common biosphere” as a justification for agreeing “long-lasting and robust commitments that prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages”. No such clause is to be found in the UK text.

It likewise makes no mention of climate change, saying that the issue “will be covered in a separate agreement on energy”.

As in CETA, the UK text envisages a Committee on Trade and Sustainable Development to oversee the commitments made in the environment section of the deal. A ‘panel of experts’ with specialist knowledge of environmental law would resolve matters relating to the environment chapter of the agreement that cannot be resolved by the committee.

While the EU’s draft broadly mirrors that arrangement, it also includes the power for a party to “take appropriate interim measures” if it identifies “undue distortion of trade or competition” by the other.

The UK’s heavy reliance on CETA’s environmental clauses highlights the gulf in ambition between the two sides. 

The European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned last week that the EU would reject a “a kind of ‘best of’ of the free trade deals signed with Canada, Korea or with Japan”, saying the bloc’s trade policy “can and must serve in the interests of sustainable development”.

However, UK chief negotiator David Frost has so far resisted the EU’s calls for a more integrated partnership, saying last Friday that demands for a level playing field were “novel and unbalanced” and would “bind” the UK “to the EU law or standards, or determine our domestic legal regimes”.

Follow-up: UK draft text, EU draft text, CETA

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