Lack of trust could derail EU UK environment agreement

A group of MPs has urged the UK Government to overcome barriers to enshrining strong environmental legislation as part of trade agreements with the European Union (EU), warning that a lack of trust between the two parties could derail a common goal to combat the climate crisis.

Lack of trust could derail EU UK environment agreement

UKICE warns that the application of new EU rules in Northern Ireland could become a flashpoint.

The House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee has gathered evidence from a range of businesses, NGOs and academic experts, outlining the barriers and opportunities to agreeing on a trade agreement with the EU that is built on strong environmental policies.

Both the UK and the EU have set out world-leading policies to radically reduce emissions in the form of net-zero and carbon-neutral targets. Despite this commonality, both parties are struggling to agree on deals regarding the environment and food safety. That discussions have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped, although the UK chose not to extend the transition period.

The initial Withdrawal Agreement was issued in October 2019 and included clauses that enable the UK to come out from all EU laws, including the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy – two standards that pro-Brexit supporters claim have stifled productivity and economic growth for workers.

Part of the agreement on the departure from the EU customs union and the laws that it enforces is a new regulatory system that the UK will need to stick to as part of any future trade deals with EU nations. This has been called a “level playing field”. This would require the UK to conform to EU standards on environmental policies and others as part of a trade deal, but the UK has no legal obligation to maintain current standards if no trade deal is agreed.

In a letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice, the Committee has outlined the importance of keeping to the level playing field in order to strengthen relations with the EU. The letter notes that keeping to the level playing field agreement would ensure that neither party could “backslide” on climate ambitions.

“We urge the Government to consider the priorities of industry and the opportunities for the UK in negotiating environment and climate change level playing field provisions with the EU, especially given your world-leading commitments and ambition in these policy areas,” the letter states.

“The evidence we gathered, however, suggested that there is room for an agreement which addresses the EU’s concerns, without restricting the Government’s ability to increase ambition or choose different policies to achieve the same goals.”

The Committee notes that a lack of trust is the current biggest barrier to a breakthrough on agreements. In particular, concerns that the UK could lower its food standards and water down its Environment Bill are hurdles to overcome.

The MPs are calling on the Environment Bill to be strengthened and for central Government to work with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on approaches to show how the UK will deliver high environmental ambitions.

Witnesses told the Committee that the UK needed to build trust with the EU on environmental legislation.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) warned that the EU’s concerns “have been given further weight by mixed signals from the UK about the future of environmental standards… the rejection of the inclusion of a non-regression clause in the Environment Bill and the accelerated trade talks with the US cause concern”. Elsewhere, UKELA and Greener UK, a coalition of 13 environmental organisations, highlighted the potential reduction in UK food standards as a consequence of the UK’s trade policy.

Lord Teverson, chair of the EU Environment Sub-Committee, said: “The environmental level playing field still appears to be a stumbling block in negotiations. The UK and EU have similarly ambitious aspirations so it should be possible to find common ground. Failure to reach an agreement could have a critical impact.

“There is room for an agreement which addresses the EU’s concerns without restricting the UK’s ability to increase ambition or choose different policies to achieve the same goals. I hope that a way forward is found.”

Environment Bill

Around 80% of the UK’s environmental laws have been forged in partnership with other nations in Europe, many of which would be upheld and scrutinised by the European Commission.

Eustice recently confirmed that the first chair of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) would be confirmed shortly. The Office has been set up to scrutinise Government targets and progress.

MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have warned that the implementation of the Environment Bill would lead to key national environmental policies becoming “severely downgraded” from those currently mandated by the EU. Similar concerns have been voiced by more than 40 environmental organisations including Greenpeace, WWF UK and ClientEarth, while Northern Ireland’s environmental department (DAERA) has asked for the remit of the Bill to be extended in geographical scope.

Matt Mace

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