Credit: Mark Breddy/Greenpeace EU

Time for ‘race to the top’ on green standards post-Brexit

The EU-UK post-Brexit relationship deal should include a special clause to ensure there is no watering down of environmental standards – the EU’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs this week in Brussels.

Barnier was speaking at an event organised by the Green10 – a group of environmental NGOs which includes the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

A key remaining question in the ongoing Brexit talks is whether the UK will remain close to the EU’s regulatory model or distance itself from it.

With environmental standards being one of the most deeply entwined areas of EU integration, the result of the negotiations will have clear implications for nature protection, air quality and energy and climate policies.

Barnier said the final Brexit deal on the future relationship between the UK and the EU should “include a non-regression clause and prevent the reduction of pre-Brexit standards”. Barnier warned that without such a mechanism, the Brexit future relationship deal risks not being ratified by the European Parliament and national parliaments across the EU.

He said:

“Without a level playing field the UK could, now or in the future, decide to reduce environmental protection to gain competitive advantage. Currently the UK is totally integrated but we are going to diverge. What will become of this divergence? Does it remain reasonable? Or does it become a tool for social, fiscal and environmental dumping? There will be no ambitious partnership without common ground on fair competition, state aid, guarantees against tax dumping and social standards and, not least, environmental standards.”

Despite a statement in March from British Prime Minister Theresa May that the UK will not engage in a “race to the bottom” on standards and the UK Environment Minister Michael Gove pledging to champion a “green Brexit”, Barnier said he would “remain extremely vigilant” to ensure that these comments result in real commitments.

Cécile Toubeau from NGO Transport and Environment said:

“We often hear encouraging words, but there are clear risks of the EU having a neighbour with low regulatory standards after 29 March 2019. We are very concerned about downward pressure on European standards.”

For Patrick ten Brink, EU Policy Director at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), it’s time for a “race to the top”:

“We welcome Michel Barnier’s and the European Parliament’s assurance that maintaining environmental standards is at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. Even if the negotiations go well and environmental standards are not undermined, there remains a very real post-Brexit risk of a lowering of environmental ambition in the UK that can impact citizens’ health and the environment in EU Member States. And weaker UK environmental standards risk weakening the EU and Member States’ resolve for high levels of environmental protection. Given that the UK will not be spared from bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change in the near future, and given the many health, social and economic benefits of progressive environmental regulation, it is in the UK government’s interests to be as environmentally ambitious as possible after Brexit. It’s time to push the UK government to raise the bar and lead a ‘race to the top’ – not the bottom.”

A new risk analysis published today from Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has cast doubt over the likelihood of a truly green Brexit.

Professor Charlotte Burns, University of Sheffield, report author said:

“The government committed to a green Brexit but our analysis demonstrates that its delivery will be challenging. Every Brexit scenario carries risks for our environment with nature protection being particularly at risk even under the soft, ‘Norwegian’ option.”

The report analysed 15 environment policies under five different scenarios. Across the board they predict a risk of policy gaps in areas such as water protection, birds and habitats protection, waste disposal, fisheries and agriculture.

Kierra Box from Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Irealand, said:

“We were promised that Brexit wouldn’t harm our environment – but this analysis shows that under all scenarios currently on the table, this promise will be broken. Brexit is now just a year away, but we’re not prepared. Report after report is showing that decision-makers have not identified ways to make sure that the UKs future relationship with the EU locks in environmental protections – in fact, they’ve set down negotiating red lines that actively stand in the way of a ‘green Brexit’. The legal safeguards are not in place for nature and the climate. And promises of action are just backed up by more promises of action. Time is running out.”

Last month EU leaders agreed on the terms of a Brexit transition period and the Brexit withdrawal deal is scheduled to be completed in October.

The first negotiations on the make-up of the EU-UK future relationship are set to begin in the coming weeks, but they can’t get into full swing until the UK leaves the EU next year.

And with such high stakes, Barnier made encouraging comments against backroom Brexit discussions.

He said:

“This negotiation is unprecedented.  Transparency is key for a public debate. So negotiations cannot be and need not be secret.