Brexit negotiations: Equivalence, environmental standards and risks

The UK has promised that it will have high environmental standards post-Brexit; but has also suggested that it should have considerable flexibility in how it delivers them. Our briefing note sets out some of the underlying issues, looks in detail at some of the areas of EU environmental legislation and the issues that arise for each, and comes up with a set of principles that EU negotiators could adopt.

The negotiators on both sides have been making the right noises. The UK’s emphasis on environmental ambition has clearly been designed to persuade EU policymakers that there are no real risks; and the EU has included environmental issues among a list where it will want to avoid risks of competitive deregulation.

However, if the UK has greater flexibility over the design of environmental rules in future, there are some risks.

Firstly, current UK environmental governance is relatively weak, and does not allow for sufficient challenge to Government decision-making (other than through the EU system, which will no longer apply post-Brexit). Responding to this governance gap should be a priority.

Secondly, UK commitments to environmental standards need to be implemented through legislation that ensures that those standards will be met – vaguely-worded commitments in principle should not be sufficient. 

Finally, UK policymakers may come under pressure from non-EU trading partners to weaken their environmental requirements, in order to benefit from the new free trade deals that are a priority for the current government. EU negotiators need to guard against the risk that this could weaken future application of key environmental principles, including the precautionary principle.

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