Confederation of Timber Industries welcomes Defra support for EU timber regulations, but is the Foreign Secretary signed up to such high levels of regulatory convergence?
The government has reiterated that it will retain influential EU forestry and timber rules post-Brexit, as part of wider efforts to support the timber industry and tackle illegal deforestation around the world. But the reassurance has come as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson prepares to argue that it would be "intolerable" and "undemocratic" for the UK to be subject to EU laws that it has no say over.
Speaking last week at a parliamentary reception hosted by the Confederation of Timber Industries (CTI), Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said the government's commitment to transferring EU environmental legislation onto the UK statute book through the Withdrawal Bill would include forestry regulations.
"When we leave the EU, the Withdrawal Bill will make sure the whole body of European environmental law continues to have effect in UK law," she told an audience of timber industry executives. "This means bringing into UK law two regulations that the UK timber sector played a great role in shaping: the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) and the Forest Law Environment Governance and Trade Regulation (FLEGT). I want to thank your industry for your continued commitment to a responsible and sustainable trade in timber."
The commitment was welcomed by David Hopkins, Director of the CTI, who said both regulations had played a key role in driving more responsible forest management around the world.
"I welcome the Minister's assurance that the government will ensure that both the EUTR and FLEGT will continue to operate in the UK after Brexit," he said. "The timber industries have worked closely with the government to lead the development of these EU regulations, which have enabled the UK to become a global champion for responsibly-sourced timber. Incorporating the principles underpinning the EUTR and FLEGT into domestic law will enable the UK timber industries to continue to flourish."
EU timber regulations were tightened in 2013 with the introduction of the FLEGT regime, which bans the import of illegally felled timber and requires imported material to secure a license demonstrating that it has been obtained legally.
The rules have been criticised by some green groups for not covering enough timber-based product types and for not being robustly enforced. But the approach has also been praised for driving the adoption of more responsible forestry practices in developing markets and providing a more level playing field for European timber operators.
Coffey also stressed the government's commitment to meeting its goal of planting 11 million trees, reiterated its support for plans for a new Northern Forest, and said the government was keen to support industry efforts to promote the wider use of sustainable timber in the construction industry. "We remain firmly committed to halting illegal logging, combating deforestation, and enhancing sustainability," she added.
But Coffey's comments, which echo Environment Secretary Michael Gove's repeated commitment to deliverting a Green Brexit, came ahead of today's heavily-trailed speech from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, where he is expected to set out the case for a high degree of regulatory divergence from Brussels as part of a "liberal Brexit".
According to various reports Johnson will warn that any attempt to halt Brexit would be a "disastrous mistake" that would be seen as a betrayal by the majority of voters and will argue that "we cannot and will not let it happen".
He is also expected to offer some conciliatory words for Remainers, acknowledging that they are "actuated by entirely noble sentiments, a real sense of solidarity with our European neighbours and a desire for the UK to succeed".
However, early reports suggest he will cede little ground to Remainers, and will instead continue to argue for a "Hard Brexit" based on the UK quitting both the Single Market and Customs Union.
And he will hint the UK should pursue a trade deal that allows for a high degree of regulatory independence from the EU - a stance that faces fierce opposition in Brussels and some of his cabinet colleagues.
Johnson will insist it would be "intolerable" and "undemocratic" if the UK is subject to EU laws that it has no power over. "To those who worry about coming out of the customs union or the single market - please bear in mind that the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed," he will say.
He will aslo argue that "it is only by taking back control of our regulatory framework and our tariff schedules that we can do these [new trade] deals, and exploit the changes in the world economy".
It remains to be seen if Johnson will echo government claims that Ministers will deliver a "Green Brexit" and retain strong environmental protections.
However, the prospect of a "Hard Brexit", a high degree of regulatory divergence from Brussels, and a new trade deal with the US will fuel concerns that the government could in future seek to water down environmental standards.
Moreover, Johnson's desire to ensure the UK is fully free from EU laws risks undermining efforts to agree a trade deal with Brussels given the bloc has repeatedly stressed the UK would have to honour environmental and other standards as part of any new agreement.
The intervention comes in the same week as reports suggested the EU will make ratification of the Paris Agreement and credible action on climate change a condition of any future trade deals.
EU trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom noted the condition had been included in the recent trade deal with Japan and would be "needed in all EU trade agreements".
The condition effectively blocks any attempt to secure a new trade deal with the US while it is preparing to quit the international accord.
It is also likely to be included in upcoming trade talks with the UK, Mexico and the South American Mercosur trade bloc.
The UK has already ratified the Paris Agreement and is doubly committed to curbing greenhouse gas emissions through its domestic Climate Change Act. However, a Paris Agreement clause in any future trade deal between the UK and EU could help guard against back-sliding by both the UK government and EU member states.
The question as to how much regulatory convergence on the environment and multiple other issues can be baked into a future trade deal remains one of the great unanswered questions of the Brexit process. And as the contrast between Johnson's speech and the government's stated intention on a host of regulations suggests, the question is a long way from being answered.
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