Prime Minister sets out plan to maintain environmental protection, as she warns any government that relaxed green rules would be punished at the ballot box
Theresa May has today given the clearest indication yet of her intention to minimise post-Brexit disruption for the green economy, promising to maintain environmental standards and work as closely as possible with key EU energy and environment agencies post-Brexit.
In a widely anticipated speech on the UK’s future economic partnership with the EU, May stressed that as part of a new trade deal with the EU the UK had to be willing to make “binding commitments” to honour some EU regulations.
“As with any trade agreement, we must accept the need for binding commitments – for example, we may choose to commit some areas of our regulations like state aid and competition to remaining in step with the EU’s,” she said.
May did not specifically name any binding commitments on green rules, but reiterated the government had no intention of rolling back environmental protections. She also aimed thinly veiled criticism at those Conservative colleagues who have argued for axing environmental rules.
“In other areas like workers’ rights or the environment, the EU should be confident that we will not engage in a race to the bottom in the standards and protections we set,” she said. “There is no serious political constituency in the UK which would support this – quite the opposite.”
She added that a commitment to ensure the relevant UK regulatory standards remain “at least as high as the EU’s” would help enable a new customs arrangement that would result in a UK-EU border that was “as frictionless as possible with no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
May acknowledged binding commitments to honour EU standards would constrain the UK’s ability to lower regulatory standards. But in another swipe at the hard Brexiteers in her party she argued that “in practice we are unlikely to want to reduce our standards: not least because the British public would rightly punish any government that did so at the ballot box”.
She also explained that a new independent arbitration body and close co-operation between UK and EU regulators could ease concerns about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK post-Brexit and the prospect of the UK signing up to regulations over which it has no control.
In addition, the Prime Minister confirmed the UK would seek associate membership or close co-operation with a host of European agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency which governs the sweeping REACH regulations.
“We would, of course, accept that this would mean abiding by the rules of those agencies and making an appropriate financial contribution,” she said, adding that such an agreement would bring significant benefits to the UK, including ensuring products only need to undergo one series of approvals, in one country.
However, she also stressed that parliament would remain sovereign and could reject rules set by EU agencies at a later date, albeit “with consequences for our membership of the relevant agency and linked market access rights”.
Similarly, May hinted the UK would explore continued close co-operation with the EU’s energy union and Euratom agency.
“On energy, we will want to secure broad energy co-operation with the EU,” she said. “This includes protecting the single electricity market across Ireland and Northern Ireland – and exploring options for the UK’s continued participation in the EU’s internal energy market. We also believe it is of benefit to both sides for the UK to have a close association with Euratom.”
However, she stopped short of providing details on how such a relationship might work and made no mention of the UK’s plans for the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS).
The speech provided the clearest indication yet that the government is seeking an extremely high degree of post-Brexit continuity on environmental and energy issues.
However, May did not provide many precise details on which regulations and rules the UK would make “binding commitments” on and did not fully address the political challenge of signing up to regulatory regimes that could see the UK have rules and fines imposed from Brussels post-Brexit.
She also insisted some post-Brexit flexibility on environmental policies would still be required, most notably in the fields of agriculture and fisheries.
“The UK has among the highest environmental and animal welfare standards of any nation on earth,” she said. “As we leave the EU we will uphold environmental standards and go further to protect our shared natural heritage. And I fully expect that our standards will remain at least as high as the EU’s.
“But it will be particularly important to secure flexibility here to ensure we can make the most of the opportunities presented by our withdrawal from the EU for our farmers and exporters.”
However, any attempt to reform UK agricultural subsidies and rules could face resistance from Brussels if the EU perceives that the reforms provide British farmers with an unfair advantage.
May also stressed the UK would regain control over domestic fisheries management rules and access to UK waters. But she insisted the government would continue to work with the EU to “manage shared stocks in a sustainable way and to agree reciprocal access to waters”.
It remains to be seen if the speech can win over Hard Brexiteers – who have argued that deregulation should be a key component of the UK’s economic strategy post-Brexit – as well as EU negotiators who are likely to seek extremely strong assurances from the government that EU standards will indeed be honoured once the UK leaves the EU.