Breaking: Brexit deal announced, reports suggest ‘level playing field’ on green rules could be maintained

Thursday October 17th, 2019

Boris Johnson declares deal will allow UK to ‘move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment’, but questions remain over whether agreement can secure Parliamentary majorityBoris

The British government and the EU have this morning announced they have agreed a withdrawal agreement that could yet allow the UK to leave the bloc by the end of the month.

But the news prompted immediate pushback from the DUP, which insisted some issues still needed to be resolved. It also remains hugely unclear as to whether the proposed deal will be able to command a majority in the House of Commons, with opposition parties continuing to oppose an agreement they fear will be damaging to both the UK economy and the union.

The text of the Withdrawal Agreement was published this morning, prompting a rush by MPs and commentators to analyse the deal ahead of a crunch Commons vote this weekend.

Reports suggested Prime Minister Boris Johnson had undertaken a series of major climbdowns in recent days in pursuit of a deal. They include concessions that could yet see the UK sign up to ‘level playing field’ commitments on environmental and workers’ rights rules as part of any future trade deal with the EU.

Previous commitments to maintain a ‘level playing field’ appear to have been moved from the binding Withdrawal Agreement to the accompanying non-binding Political Declaration.

The declaration states that any new trade deal between the UK and EU would be “underpinned by provisions ensuringa level playing field for open and fair competition”.

It adds that “the Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters”.

It also stresses that both the UK and EU are “determined to work together to safeguard the rules-based international order, the rule of law and promotion of democracy, and high standards of free and fair trade and workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”.

The deal is expected to see the whole of the UK leave the EU customs union, but a de facto regulatory and customs border would be established in the Irish Sea.

In a morning of high drama in Westminster and Brussels, both Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker published Tweets indicating a deal had been done. Johnson said the deal would mean “we can move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment”.

But the DUP immediately responded by suggesting its position had not moved since it published a statement this morning, which argued it could not yet sign off on the proposed agreement.
Westminster observers have suggested that were the DUP to back the deal the European Research Group of Brexit-backing Conservative MPs would also vote in favour of the agreement. If now independent former Conservative MPs and Labour rebels who had previously backed Theresa May’s deal vote for the new
Withdrawal Agreement then it could likely command a slim majority.
However, with the Commons now expected to sit on Saturday to debate the deal any vote is expected to be on a knife edge. Critics are set to insist it would prove even more damaging to the UK’s economic prospects than May’s deal and increase the chances of the Union breaking up.
May had previously said no British Prime Minister would sign off on an agreement that effectively installed a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Meanwhile, Labour is expected to whip its MPs in support of amendments that would require a confirmatory referendum on the final deal, fuelling speculation that independent MPs could back the move and secure a majority for a second public vote.
Environmental and green business groups are this morning analysing the implications of a deal that appears to have dropped a binding commitment to maintain a long term level playing field on environmental standards, but voiced support for such provisions as part of a new trade deal.
Campaigners have repeatedly warned that such a move would enable a deregulatory ‘race to the bottom’ on green policies as advocated by some Conservative MPs, arguing that if the government is serious about maintaining and strengthening environmental protections post-Brexit there is no rationale for ditching ‘level playing field’ requirements.

The Guardian reported late yesterday that the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had told ambassadors he had secured the basis for on-going fair competition with the UK after Number 10 conceded any future free trade agreement with the EU would have to include ‘level-playing field’ provisions.
The move could open the door for the UK to water down standards if an EU trade deal is not reached, but with Number 10 insisting it wants to use the planned post-Brexit transition period to finalise a new trade deal it appears Johnson has accepted wide-ranging regulatory divergence is not compatible with a new trade agreement.
The news was welcomed by Shaun Spiers, chair of the Greener UK group of environmental NGOs, who writing on Twitter said the commitment to a ‘level playing field’; would be “big” and “very good news” if confirmed. “The referendum was not a vote for lower standards,” he added.
However, ITV’s Robert Peston reported lines from a Downing Street source who insisted the deal would mean the “UK is out of all EU laws” and had secured a significant increase in its regulatory autonomy.

In a statement Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it looked as if the new deal would leave the door open to deregulation on the environment and other issues.
Dustin Benton of think tank Green Alliance said the Political Declaration amounted to a “very sad Brexit read from a climate perspective”.
Writing on Twitter he said the text confirmed the UK would leave the EU’s Internal Energy Market, before potentially trying to negotiate back some of the benefits of membership – a move he predicted would make decarbonisation harder and could push up bills.
He also noted the UK would lose any influence over the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), even if it attempts to integrate a new UK scheme with the ETS as planned.
And he expressed frustration that the British government was not willing to sign up the EU’s requirements for a future trade deal at this stage.

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