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Photo of Emily Lydgate7 February 2017

Dr Emily Lydgate is a lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

While the UK government White Paper on leaving the EU may be light on detail, it does suggest that securing UK environmental protections is near the bottom of its list of priorities, with a scant dedicated paragraph (8.41). Compare this with its complete section on worker’s rights; or compare to the country of Wales, which includes maintaining social and environmental standards as one of six Brexit priorities.

From wildlife to air pollution, from energy efficiency to marine conservation, UK environmental regulations are based in EU law. If the current timeline holds, the UK only will be bound by this law until March 2019 when Article 50 negotiations conclude. This does not mean that the UK will subsequently weaken its environmental regulations, but safeguarding these standards should not fall below the radar, either. This is important as there may be downward pressure on UK environmental regulation in some areas. May’s government appears to be treading water in the mid-Atlantic, deciding which way to swim.

In courting the US for a new deep trade agreement, the UK may be tempted to commit to lowering standards.

A deep UK-US Agreement will harmonize regulation

The White Paper states that the UK wants to maintain very close trade ties with the EU and also become a world-leading free-trader. In practice, the UK will probably have to choose whether to maintain mutual regulatory recognition with the EU or re-negotiate with US (or other third country) markets in mind. The US embrace of GMOs, chemically-washed meat, pesticides banned in the EU and hormones for beef were among the controversies that stalled the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and the US. EU officials were at pains to reassure the public that they would not accept any reduction in levels of consumer protection, including in high-profile environmental areas such as GMOs and hormones.

The UK may not offer such a guarantee. It has expressed frustration, for example, about the EU’s precautionary approach to new technologies, particularly pesticides.

A crop duster spraying farm land

A crop duster sprays agricultural land near the Choptank River in Caroline County, Md., on June 18, 2010. (Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program)

With a climate-change denying government at the helm, US domestic regulation on vehicle emissions and energy efficiency standards and labelling could be gutted, putting downward pressure on UK regulation. Also, the UK could become a major importer of goods from a country that has pledged to leave the Paris Agreement and may well revoke its domestic regulation of carbon emissions. The UK could push to include climate change commitments in the trade agreement, as the EU proposed with TTIP, or consider imposing border adjustment taxes on US exports, an idea that some EU politicians have entertained. These proposals may appear laughable in the context of the Trump administration, but this just underlines the problem. This leads to the second challenge:

2) Bargaining inequality

It is a basic feature of international trade negotiations that economically stronger and larger countries normally have an advantage over smaller ones. Not surprisingly, given that it is the world’s largest economy, the US has an extremely well-established and well-resourced team of trade negotiators. The influence of the mercurial and protectionist President Trump is difficult to predict. But it is safe to say that the US will massively out-gun the UK, which has not had its own independent trade policy in 45 years. Indeed UK officials have already raised alarms about the negative results this could produce. This is a general concern. However it is also relevant to UK environmental standards that have a prohibitive impact on US imports: as with other UK strategic objectives, if the UK decides to go forth with a deep FTA (rather than walking away) they may not fare well.

3) Lack of due process in the UK

The White Paper emphasizes that the UK will seek a wide range of views on the impacts of Brexit on UK businesses and workers, and that it has hosted many events to seek those views. However, it says nothing about whether and how the UK will attempt to assess its impacts on the natural environment or environmental standards of the UK. When the EU negotiates new trade agreements it undertakes Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) which includes evaluating environmental impacts of the Agreement both in the EU and abroad. While SIA has been critiqued, it plays a useful role: focusing attention on the impacts of trade agreements, and putting these issues on the negotiation table and into public discourse. When it comes to the environmental impacts of Brexit, and a UK-US trade deal, this is precisely what the UK government must achieve.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.

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