Insertion of a non-regression requirement in any final agreement was a key ask from environmental campaigners
The government has aceded to a key demand from environmentalists in its Brexit White Paper today, including proposals in the document for a non-regression requirement to ensure the UK does not backslide on environmental standards after it has left the EU.
The White Paper, based on Prime Minister Theresa May's so-called Chequers Plan for Brexit, sets out a plan for continued regulatory alignment with the EU on goods and foodstuffs after Brexit, with new arrangements put in place for services.
Ahead of its release, campaigners welcomed the government's intention to maintain a "common rulebook" for goods and maintenance of high environmental standards, but insisted more detailed pledges were needed to ensure political promises were backed by legislation.
A key ask was for a "strong non-regression clause", alongside closer co-operation with EU institutions on environmental matters. Both those calls appear to have been answered by the White Paper.
"In the context of a deep economic partnership, the UK proposes reflecting its domestic choice to maintain high regulatory standards for the environment," it reads. "To that effect, the UK and the EU should commit to the non-regression of environmental standards. There should also be a reciprocal commitment to ongoing environmental cooperation, including in international fora, to solve shared global environmental challenges."
It's a victory for environmental campaigners after Environment Secretary Michael Gove reportedly suggested a detailed non-regression clause to safeguard standards in any new EU-UK trade deal would be "unnecessary".
Today's paper also confirms that the 'common rulebook' for manufactured goods would include rules which set environmental requirements for products, such as their energy consumption. This means the UK would be subject to efficiency standards for appliances such as toasters, kettles and hairdryers - an issue that angered Brexiters during the referendum campaign.
The paper also reiterates the government's commitment to maintaining its domestic climate ambitions after Brexit and to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a new UK system to deliver better environmental outcomes.
Meanwhile, plans for continued UK membership of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) are revealed - a decision Head of GreenerUK Amy Mount branded a "no-brainer".
However, other green issues are not as decisively handled - the paper does not, for example, present a definitive answer on whether the UK would leave the Internal Energy Market (IEM), which governs international power trading.
The failure to reach a conclusive stance will disappoint the influential trade body Energy UK, which called on the government to formally commit to remaining in the IEM earlier this week, arguing a failure to clarify future trading arrangements could push up energy costs and increase the risk of emissions targets being missed.
And campaigners raised concerns that the White Paper lacks solid commitments on some areas of international co-operation between the UK and EU on climate issues, such as climate change, biodiversity or cross-border pollution.
"Government needs to recognise that Europe is a biogeographical unit as well as an economic one," Mount wrote on Twitter.
Nor any mention of continued participation in the Natura 2000 network, the world's largest co-ordinated ecological network of protected sites for #nature. Govt needs to recognise that Europe is a biogeographical unit as well as an economic one.— Amy Mount (@ASmallAMount) July 12, 2018
Overall, Mount welcomed the inclusion of the non-regression commitment, but warned that how the UK co-operates with the EU and in what areas "remains largely ambigious".
"While there are some proposals for fisheries, there is no mention of the vital Natura 2000 programme for wildlife, and no proposal to continue sharing data and expertise through the European Environment Agency," she added in a statement later. "The government is clearly starting to move beyond rhetoric to real proposals, especially where there's an economic rationale to do so. But it mustn't ignore the ecological reasons for cross-border co-operation."
The paper sets out the most detailed framework yet for Brexit, but its policy proposals are likely to be challenged by lawmakers both in the UK Parliament and the EU.
Hard line Tory MPs view the document as preparing the way for a 'Soft Brexit', and are expected to spend the next few days scrutinising the document carefully before deciding whether to mount a leadership challenge against Prime Minister Theresa May. Potential sticking points are likely to include the White Paper's plans for a sizeable role for the European Court of Justice, previously a red line for the government and many Brexiters, and the threat of financial penalties imposed by the EU if the rules are not followed.
"The type of measures that could be imposed for different sorts of breaches would be technical, but could include financial penalties or suspension of specific obligations," the paper notes.
Fears also remain among green campaigners that plans for green protections could yet be watered down unless safeguards are extremely robust, with plans for a new post-Brexit watchdog still under scrutiny.
Meanwhile on the EU side DExEU Secretary Dominic Raab will meet with the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier next week to discuss next steps for Brexit.
Meanwhile an "alternative" Brexit whitepaper, backed by former DExEU Secretary David Davis and leaked to Conservative Home today, reveals proposals have also been drawn up for a future partnership that would see the UK and EU engage in a "dynamic regulatory relationship" under a free trade-style agreement.
According to the alternative paper, both sides would have to accept "good practice" inspections at for example manufacturing sites, while for agriculture, food and fish products it advocates a path that provides both parties with "regulatory flexibility" with "outcome equivalence".
But the government has dismissed the alternative draft, and the EU has already indicated that its core proposals would not be acceptable as the basis for a future deal.
Today's official White Paper from the government will likely be received with a cautious welcome by green business and campaign groups, pleased to see some of their key demands met. But although the Paper goes some way to clearing the uncertainty surrounding the UK's departure from the EU, key issues still remain unresolved - not least over governance, carbon trading and political co-operation on climate issues.
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