Dr Emily Lydgate is a lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and Dr Rob Amos is a Research Fellow in Law, Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, University of Sussex. Rob is conducting a project on Sustainable Trade Post-Brexit in collaboration with the UK Trade Policy Observatory.
If the UK is going to live up to its commitments to ‘Green Brexit’, climate change mitigation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UK should develop its own Sustainability Impact Assessments framework to minimise negative impacts and maximise benefits of future trade agreements.
As the UK leaves the European Union and develops its own independent trade policy, there are many areas of trade governance that need to be discussed and addressed. As it has not managed external trade independently for many years, there are no existing procedures for scoping, negotiating and ratifying trade agreements. Proposed legislation does not fill the gaps, and questions remain about the governance of new trade agreements, as well as those ‘rolled over’ from the EU.
As detailed in our latest Briefing Paper: Integrating sustainable development objectives into UK trade policy, for a transparent and inclusive process, the UK should establish formal mechanisms for a wide range of stakeholders to feed into trade negotiations, which will ultimately lead to better-informed and more successful trade policy.
Furthermore, provisions for Parliamentary oversight of trade deals will be insufficient once EU law is withdrawn, the report says, and new powers should be granted to Parliament to ensure its sovereignty after Brexit.
Leaving the EU will necessitate the UK having an independent trade policy and, as part of the process of governing its external trade, the UK is going to need to consider how to integrate its sustainable development objectives into its new trade policies.
The UK’s ability to take leadership in this area will hinge around its ability to develop a robust framework to ensure that the negotiation process is transparent and democratically accountable. To achieve this, the Government should provide for increased scrutiny and oversight of its approach to new trade agreements as well as existing trade agreements with the EU, which may be subject to substantial modifications from their current forms.
Dr Lydgate explains:
“UK trade agreements will impact upon many areas of the UK economy in which Parliament has legislative powers, such as energy, public services, agriculture and finance. If Parliament was to have an enhanced role in trade negotiation, it could inform the mandate for negotiations and review their progress, as well as voting on whether to ratify the final Agreement.
The reinforcement of parliamentary sovereignty is often cited as a benefit of Brexit. For this reason, the UK Parliament’s oversight of, and influence on, UK trade policy should at least be commensurate to that enjoyed by the UK under EU law.”
The authors assert that the impact of new trade agreements – including on the environment and vulnerable populations – should also be assessed and addressed. UK trade agreements will be both an influential component of UK foreign policy, and also a significant determinant of its domestic economy and regulation. Domestically, liberalisation of UK trade could lead to weakening of UK objectives in other areas, such as environmental and consumer protection and high labour standards.
Leaving the Customs Union would give the UK freedom to conclude Free Trade Agreements independent of the EU, with the prospect of a UK-US trade deal already on the cards. Yet, the US has long complained of the EU’s approach to food safety, which has led to bans on a number of US exports and also expressed concern about the EU’s increasingly cautious approach to endocrine-disrupting pesticides and slow approval process for genetically modified organisms.
To some extent, the UK will have to choose whether to maintain harmonised standards with the EU or re-negotiate these with US (or other countries’) markets in mind. This, in turn, will help determine whether the UK maintains the status quo with respect to its product-related environmental and consumer protection standards or adopts an approach that the EU would consider constitutes a lower level of protection.
To navigate all this and implement an evidence-based approach to trade policymaking, the report argues that it is in the UK’s interests to develop its own Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) framework for future trade agreements. SIA is a mechanism that not only seeks to minimise the negative impacts of Free Trade Agreements but also to maximise their benefits.
Dr Amos says that a robust SIA framework will lead to better trade agreements:
“Taking into account the weaknesses that have been identified in the EU’s Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) framework we propose a new UK scheme for SIA that best serves the UK’s trade policy. This would include the use of an external party to assess the potential impacts of any trade agreement, mechanisms for dialogue and wider consultation, and oversight of the SIA process by Parliamentary committees. This would enhance transparency and accountability within the SIA.”
The authors conclude that implementing SIAs will allow the UK to negotiate based upon a more solidly grounded position regarding impacts on a range of stakeholders, such that its trade agreements benefit more of the UK, and are less likely to be undermined by public protest.
The briefing paper Integrating sustainable development objectives into UK trade policy was funded by the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP), a partnership between the University of Sussex and the Institute of Development Studies. SSRP was launched in 2015, with the support of a £3 million investment from the University, to address complex socio-economic, technical and environmental challenges.
The opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex.