Report from influential think tank argues there is ‘no need’ for environmental provisions that go beyond existing US trade deal
Think tanks with close links to the UK and US government have today published plans for an “ideal”post-Brexit UK-US trade deal, which would strip out many of the environmental protections that have become central to modern trade agreements.
The Washington-based free market Cato Institute, which was founded by the climate sceptic fossil fuel magnates the Koch family, and the recently launched Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), which was founded by leading Vote Leave campaigner and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, today published a major new report entitled The Ideal US-UK Free Trade Agreement – A Free Traders Perspective.
The paper argues that post-Brexit the US and UK should pursue a trade deal that is “more liberalising than any other free trade agreement in the world”.
As such it calls for the axing of tariffs and a narrow focus on trade that removes many of the environmental and labour safeguards that have become commonplace in many recent trade deals. Campaigners were quick to warn it represents a strategy that would open up the UK agricultural sector to low cost US competition and allow US health providers to compete for NHS contracts.
“Nongovernmental organisations have used trade agreements as a vehicle to argue for provisions on labor rights protections and environmental protections,” the paper states. “That situation has expanded the scope of trade agreements far beyond traditional trade and commercial issues, raising concerns from many on the right. The scope and reach of labour laws and environmental protections are a controversial domestic policy issue, and the use of international agreements to create a one-size-fits-all solution in these areas is problematic.”
However, green groups have long argued environmental standards are an essential component of modern trade deals as they drive up global standards and stop countries undercutting each other by allowing their businesses to pollute in a way that offloads their costs onto the environment.
Trade experts and campaigners have warned any US-UK trade deal would see the US demand that the UK accepts imports of US products that are produced to lower environmental standards, such as chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef.
The Cato and IFT report makes no specific mention of the controversial topic of chlorinated chicken. It also acknowledges exemptions should be included in any trade deal that allow governments to act to meet a “legitimate objective”, including objectives relating to the environment and animal welfare.
However, it stresses that such exemptions should not be allowed where they constitute “a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between countries where the same conditions prevail, or a disguised restriction on international trade”.
Similarly, the report acknowledges that the proposals will face political opposition. “For example, although provisions guaranteeing protections of labour rights and the environment have no place in an agreement committed to simple, straightforward, free market-based rules (even more so when the parties aren’t regarded as significant transgressors in these areas), they have become standard features in free trade agreements,” it notes. “To even consider supporting these agreements, some political parties demand that they include – at a minimum – provisions ensuring certain standards of labour conditions or environmental practices.”
However, it stresses that such protections should be kept to an absolute minimum. “As for governance, some basic rules on intellectual property, labour, and the environment are inevitable,” the report states. “But there is no need to push the boundaries here, with provisions that go beyond existing US FTAs.”
Existing US free trade agreements insist on widespread acceptance of US environmental standards. Public concern over the prospects of chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef imports was one of the key factors in the stalling of recent US-EU trade talks.
Amy Mount of the Greener UK coalition said the new proposals amounted to “a depressing vision for our future”.
“Flooding our supermarkets with chlorinated chicken, undercutting our farmers and lowering environmental standards would be a strange way to take back control,” she said. “The UK has benefited from trade deals that embrace high standards, and enjoyed high quality food and safer products as a result. Our blueprint for post-Brexit trade should be defined by a lighter footprint on the global environment, not a low-standards free-for-all.”
The paper will be of particular concern to environmental campaigners given the influence the authors and associated think tanks wield within Washington and Westminster. The IFT was controversially launched last year at an event at the Foreign Office with then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Environment Secretary Michael Gove in attendance. Similarly, the Cato Institute is known to have close ties to key figures in the Trump administration.
The paper also comes as some figures within government are reportedly calling for a watering down of UK environmental standards post-Brexit. Home Secretary Sajid Javid is understood to have told Cabinet last week that the UK should roll back environmental regulations on businesses in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
The government has repeatedly insisted it will pursue a ‘Green Brexit’ and will maintain high environmental standards upon leaving the EU. However, influential Conservative backbenchers have publicly backed a vision more in line with that proposed by the IFT and Cato Institute today, while environmental campaigners remain concerned that even if the UK largely retains EU environmental standards the government is yet to put in place sufficiently robust governance measures to ensure they are followed.
It seems like the battle to deliver a Green Brexit continues to face opposition from within the Conservative Party’s own ranks.