The UK has published its legal position on the Withdrawal Agreement. The level playing field intended to secure a fair and open competition in the future single customs union is applicable to the whole UK territory. Regarding the environmental level playing field, the assessment confirms there is a non-regression clause with further UK’s commitments to be established by the Joint Committee. The UK should also pay regard to the effective implementation of multilateral environmental agreements and establish a carbon pricing system that is at least equivalent to the EU’s ETS. If the arbitration mechanism is not applicable to disputes related to these provisions, it can be used if the UK’s domestic monitorisation and enforcement are defective.
A report by the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology suggests that under the Withdrawal Agreement, a set of EU environmental principles will need to be incorporated into the UK’s legislation. Among the principles referred to, is the precautionary principle, preventive action, rectification at source and the polluter pays principle. Principles stemming from the Aarhus convention are also included: public access to environmental information, participation in decision-making and access to justice in regard to environmental matters.
The report presents the EU’s ban on genetically modified crops and neonicotinoids (pesticides associated with the decline in bee populations), where the precautionary principle has been invoked. Both cases demonstrate the far-reaching impact the precautionary principle could have on trade and the maintenance of a level playing field in the future EU-UK relationship.
The application and interpretation of these principles will be determined to a large extent by the UK’s Environmental Principles and Governance Bill, for which a government proposal is expected in the next six months. However, the report puts up questions about the enforcement. According to the General Council of the Bar of England and Wales, the watchdog as proposed in Defra’s consultation on the Bill would lack equivalent powers to those of the European Commission.
The Norway Plus option made headlines this week as an alternative landing point to the customs union in the Northern Ireland backstop, which is the most contentious arrangement under the Withdrawal Agreement. It would entail UK’s accession to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA) and remaining within the internal market, plus a customs union arrangement to avoid a hard customs border in Ireland.
The EEA Agreement provides for a dynamic alignment with EU environmental legislation and its Annex XX sets a list of those norms. It includes amongst others EU laws on water, air, chemicals or environmental impact assessments. EEA countries adopt EU laws, though often with some delay, a practice which is called “fax-democracy” in Norway (as laws used to arrive from Brussels by fax). Nature management (which covers the Birds and Habitat Directives, as well as Natura 2000 Network) are not included, but are subject to close co-operation. Annex XX is frequently updated according to new relevant EU legislation developments. Norway is also a member of the European Environment Agency and the European Chemicals Agency (as an observer of the latter). Hence, the level playing field requirements would be higher than those provided by the Northern Ireland backstop set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Within the Political Declaration, the EU and UK commit to “explore the possibility of cooperation” of the UK with three agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency ECHA, the EU’s regulatory body implementing the EU legislation on chemicals safety REACH. If the outcome of this is not entirely clear yet, one likely scenario would be to enable the UK to participate as an observer in ECHA’s proceedings. This would give access to the world’s largest chemical safety data base, but in return would require the UK to contribute finance and expertise, and to dynamically align with REACH legislation. Further, the UK would not be able to participate in decision-making processes and would be required to abide by the European Court of Justice’s rulings on this matter. In addition, the UK would have to transpose EU laws from other chemical related fields (e.g. industrial emissions, waste, water).
Prime-minister May has already expressed the UK’s willingness to remain part of ECHA, but this was received with reluctance by the EU on the grounds of cherry-picking. These new developments have been welcomed by environmental and industry associations.
The Political Declaration on the future EU-UK relationship describes in its last chapter on the economic partnership, in very general terms, the elements for a level playing field to ensure “open and fair competition”. It should cover state aid, competition, social, employment and environmental standards, climate change and relevant tax matters. These provisions should build on what already exists in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Also, a new chapter on regulatory aspects was added last minute to the Political Declaration. Stakeholders believe this allows for deeper cooperation and for a dynamic alignment, which is a key element for policy areas with regular revisions, such as chemicals safety.
Concerns about adverse impacts on the EU in the event UK lowers environmental and social standards in order to gain commercial advantages surfaced only after negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU 27 and the UK had completed.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, the magic piece of the puzzle meant to prevent a hard border with the EU, whilst also allowing the UK to restore its borders, contains significant rules relating to a level playing field. They have the potential to be applied for a long-time to come, even if unwanted. Essentially, the backstop requires Northern Ireland to follow the EU’s internal market rules, thus most environmental and health standards concerning industrial production. These include for example the regularly updated emission limit values under the Industrial Emissions Directive or the restriction of chemicals under the REACH regulation. They remain enforceable for Northern Ireland, but not for Great Britain. This means the UK could start to diverge from EU standards for England, Wales and Scotland.
Environmental quality standards, such as for water, air and nature protection, are not covered by the Protocol, except for a “non-regression clause”, which freezes protection levels as soon as the protocol enters into force. Different procedures, such as a joint committee, are provided in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, to put meat onto the bones for enforcement, but are challenged by environmental NGOs (see Guardian article).
Days before the Article 50 European Council of 25 November 2018, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands demanded stronger level playing field requirements. These calls did not change the text of the Withdrawal Agreement, but were eventually accommodated in the Political Declaration for a future relationship, as well as in a separate statement by the EU27 leaders.
Please confirm if you accept our tracking cookies. When declining the cookies, you can continue visiting the website without sending data to third party services. Read our complete cookie statement here.